[caption id="attachment_127878" align="aligncenter" width="700"]
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chat during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. Donald Trump’s rivals emerged from the second Republican debate newly confident that the brash billionaire will fade if the primary takes a more substantive turn and that they can play a role in taking him down without hurting their own White House ambitions. (Photo: AP)[/caption]
rivals emerged from the second Republican presidential debate newly confident that the brash billionaire will fade if the nomination fight takes a more substantive turn, and that they can play a role in taking him down without hurting their own White House ambitions.
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That may be little more than wishful thinking in a race that so far has defied standard political logic. Trump may have had a lackluster performance in Wednesday's debate, but to date he's proved every prediction of his campaign's demise to be premature. Often, he's emerged from such moments with stronger support.
"I keep looking for the speed bump that knocks Donald Trump off track," said Mark Meckler, a leader of the conservative tea party movement. "I haven't seen it. We're in uncharted territory."
Trump has drawn scorn from both Democrats and Republicans for insulting Hispanics and women, and remains a longshot for the presidency. And polling is notoriously unreliable at this stage of the presidential race and heavily influenced by name recognition.
But Trump's campaign surge has proved surprisingly durable, unnerving Republican leaders who fear he's damaging their party's prospects of sending one of their own to the White House.
Since the debate, Trump has drawn fire from Democrats and some Republicans after declining to rebuke a questioner at a town hall event who insulted Muslims and wrongly said President Barack Obama is a member of the faith.
Trump told conservative Republicans in Iowa on Saturday that he is not obligated to defend the president. Trump argued that he would have faced criticism if he had jumped in. He read aloud tweets he sent in his defense, including one that read: "Am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don't think so."
Recalling an incident during the 2008 campaign when Republican nominee John McCain took the microphone away from a woman who said she didn't trust Obama because he was an "Arab," Trump described McCain's reaction as "a little bit harsh."
Even if Trump does falter in the coming weeks, several dozen Republicans interviewed by The Associated Press after the latest debate said no candidate is positioned to seize control if there's a void atop the unruly Republican field.
Jeb Bush, the brother and son of presidents, is a favorite of the Republican establishment but cannot escape stubborn skepticism from conservatives. On Friday night, the former Florida governor stuck by his support for nationwide education standards, and drew boos from a crowd of thousands.
Former technology executive Carly Fiorina is emerging after a strong debate performance. But for now, she lacks the money and organization for the lengthy campaign most expect.
Republicans gathered in Michigan were excited to hear from Fiorina on Saturday.
Fiorina, whose physical appearance Trump criticized in an interview, continued her subtle jabs at the television personality and real estate mogul. "Leadership isn't defined by position, or title, or how big your office is, your airplane, your helicopter, your ego," she told Michigan Republicans.
Trump's rivals say the debate, before a television audience of 23 million, did little to reshuffle the 16-candidate field. But they contend it was pivotal in exposing Trump's vulnerabilities, most notably his glaringly undeveloped policy positions.
With four more debates before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, the party' establishment wing is banking on Trump's policy gaps becoming more troublesome as the first voting nears.
Trump's rivals were also heartened by signs that the businessman known for his sharp barbs sometimes flinched when criticism came his way.
In post-debate calls with donors and other supporters, Bush advisers singled out his defense of his brother, former President George W. Bush, when Trump challenged his record. "You know what? As it relates to my brother, there's one thing I know for sure: he kept us safe," Bush said to cheers from the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Wednesday night.
After that exchange, Bush's team noted, Trump went silent for 37 straight minutes.
Assessing the full impact of Trump's uneven debate performance will take time.
On Friday, Trump told The New York Times he was prepared to spend $100 million of his own money to win the nomination. For other candidates, fundraising will consume the rest of the month ahead of the looming Sept. 30 deadline for reporting their money totals to federal regulators.