Robert Ehlert: Trump treads water as shark opponents go on the attack

There were moments when the GOP debate Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California lived up to its billing as a political wrestling cage match that was only missing chairs that could be thrown among the contestants.

In the Early Card round, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham clearly outdid his competition and he may live to see another debate. Graham was forceful on the subjects of military action in the Middle East and the recent regional fallout that has sent tens of thousands of Syrian refugees running for their lives around the world.

Graham was also funny and folksy as he described his modest upbringing, yet stone cold serious about the need for more leadership and even U.S. boots on the ground to thwart ISIS. His co-debaters — former New York Gov. George Pataki, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — should be thinking about their 2016 exit strategies.

In the Main Event there were enough verbal mixed martial arts attacks and body slams to the frontrunners from the pack that it should affect the polls. Dare I say that Donald Trump may have held his own during frisky exchanges, but it was more defense than offense. It would not surprise me to learn over time that Sept. 16 was the day his campaign peaked. Most of his feisty and irreverent remarks are falling more flat like worn out jokes from a comedian.

The benefactors of Trump treading water Wednesday in alphabetical order: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Whether their expected gains will come at the expense of Trump or others among the 11 remains to be seen.

I look for the campaigns of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, sorry to say, Ben Carson — who looks increasingly miscast and uncomfortable in a political role — to suffer when the newest polls come out. I don’t get the sense of a flight plan from any of the three and I feel they are just taking up valuable space and time.

If you can believe it, Christie brought his A-game and displayed humor, passion and occasionally presidential perspective on leadership. His executive experience and time as a U.S. Attorney gave his words on national security some authenticity.

Though many pundits crowned Fiorina as the big winner of the night because of her ability to keep Trump off balance while delivering spurts of lucid policy positions in her poised, articulate style, I think Rubio scored nearly as many points talking foreign policy and establishing himself as someone who would fight for the little guy and the disenfranchised.

What’s in store for the candidates who survive will be the reward of even more scrutiny. In Fiorina’s case, I have been waiting for someone to point out she is capable of Trump-like personal attacks of her own — though not on the same toxic scale.

In 2010 while running for the U.S. Senate against California Sen. Barbara Boxer, Fiorina was caught off guard and captured on film criticizing Boxer’s hairstyle. You be the judge about whether her comments sunk to the depths of Trump’s characterization of Fiorina’s face — or whether this is all just the latest example of the ugly side of politics.

Let us know who you think won or lost last night’s debate.