CNN’s Prizefight

Bush, Trump and Fiorina.

Last night after the nation watched the bottom four GOP candidates duke it out in the junior varsity debates, it settled in to watch the campaign season’s heavyweights battle each other after weeks of exchanging barbs.

Arguably, moderator Jake Tapper‘s style was more akin to Bravo’s Andy Cohen than anything else, prompting candidates to respond to each other’s comments and sometimes insults directly. Like a Real Housewives franchise reunion special, the focus of the debate was less on the substance and more on the settling of scores. Tapper masterfully handled the candidates like balls in a slingshot, loading them up and letting them fly.

I mean, Donald Trump started the debate off by responding to Rand Paul‘s charge that his attacks on personal appearance were more suited to “junior high” than a presidential debate by saying, “I never attacked him on his looks and believe me, there is plenty of subject matter right there. That I can tell you.”

With that in mind, let’s put on our waders and get into that muck. For the purposes of this post we will focus on the two candidates whose interaction had been the most anticipated and the newcomer to the group.

Bush v. Trump

In the past few months, Trump has called Jeb Bush “low-energy” and suggested that his Mexican-American wife has influenced his immigration policy. Last night, Bush was out for out blood. It all started when the topic of special-interest money was raised. Bush told the audience that when he was governor of Florida, Trump was “generous and gave me money” and had attempted to change the governor’s position on casino gambling in Florida.

“I’m not going to be bought by anybody,” Bush told the crowd.

Trump’s response: “Totally false…I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”

This was just a sign of things to come as the two went on to quarrel over women’s health issues, the Iraq War, and much more. Throughout the debate, Jeb was obviously doing all that he could to shake the idea that he is a “low-energy” guy, but as Bloomberg put it, he’s “Still showing more head than heart.”

Fiorina shined

In her debut appearance, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO spoke with authority and demonstrated an impressive knowledge and understanding of international affairs. Carly Fiorina was aggressive in making sure that she was allowed to respond to what she wanted, and she took on Trump’s business experience, specifically his bankruptcies.

Fiorina also gracefully overcame criticisms of her time at Hewlett-Packard. When Trump implied that as CEO she ran the company into the ground, Fiorina was notably unshaken in her response. Bloomberg Politics gave Fiorina an A- for her performance.

The next debate will be held in two weeks, and a lot can happen in that time. Ben Carson made it through the debate with no standout moments, but his performance was steady and principled, qualities that have made him an attractive candidate for voters. Bush stepped up his presidential game between the first and second debates, and perhaps he will be able to take it up another level. It will also be interesting to see where Fiorina lands in the week to come. She’s obviously building momentum and her debate performance will only help her.