SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- He smirked. He shouted. He wagged his finger. He taunted his opponents.
In the opening stages of Wednesday night’s marathon Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump was very much the outsized version of himself that has enthralled the nation all summer.
When it was all said and done, however, Trump did not steal the show to the extent that he has at every turn leading up to this point in the campaign, perhaps signaling--at long last -- a new stage in the race for the GOP nomination, in which the overriding narrative might no longer be The Donald vs. Everybody Else.
Perhaps it was a function of the debate’s length, which clocked in at three hours --about as long as a Major League baseball game and with as many dull moments as illuminating ones.
CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper covered a broad range of topics, from the Iran nuclear agreement and immigration to medical marijuana and vaccines, but it was difficult to discern any cohesive storyline.
Trump -- who had echoed the complaints of other observers both before and after the event in arguing that the debate was too long -- came across at times less like a non-politician for whom the rules don’t apply and more like one of the 11 candidates who shared the stage.
Each of the GOP contenders had their moments, and none of them suffered any glaring mishaps.
As was the case last month during the first debate in Cleveland, Ohio, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was particularly strong in laying out his foreign policy vision, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was in his comfort zone describing his hard-line stance on social issues, and famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson took a subdued approach to a format that typically rewards louder voices.
But it was Fiorina -- a newcomer to the main debate stage after she used a strong performance at the second-tier candidates’ debate in Cleveland to gain enough in the national polls to make the cut -- who may have stood out the most by somehow outperforming the most skilled entertainer in politics.
And she used Trump’s own words to accomplish the task.
Asked about disparaging comments that Trump had made regarding her appearance, Fiorina paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. And then she delivered one of the night’s most memorable lines.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said, as the audience rewarded her succinct and cutting take on the matter with the loudest applause of the night.
As is his custom, Trump refused to apologize outright -- sticking to his previous explanation that he was not really referring to Fiorina’s “face” when he made the damaging remarks, which were printed in Rolling Stone magazine. But he did back down in his own way.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face,” Trump said. “And I think she’s a beautiful woman.”
At this point, Fiorina’s face remained steely, and the moment belonged to her.
On foreign policy, Fiorina -- who recently has been making inroads in the nation’s first primary state of New Hampshire -- came across as knowledgeable and decisive and appeared intent on mitigating concerns that she doesn’t have the requisite experience to lead the nation on the world stage.
She defended with confidence her controversial tenure at Hewlett-Packard that led to her firing, spoke emotionally about losing a child to drug abuse, and received another massive round of applause when she laid out the reasons for her support for defunding Planned Parenthood.
“I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes,” she said of the controversial, secretly-recorded videos that have resonated deeply with conservative voters.
Though it was difficult to remember it almost three hours after the fact, CNN moderator Jake Tapper’s initial attempt to facilitate a fight between Fiorina and Trump fell short when Fiorina refused to say whether people should be concerned about the prospect that Trump -- a former reality TV star -- might one day have his finger on the nuclear button.
“I think Mr. Trump is a wonderful entertainer,” Fiorina said. “That’s not for me to answer. It’s for the voters in this country to answer.”
Trump, for his part, at first tried to ignore Fiorina and instead attacked Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whom he said “shouldn’t be on this stage” because of his low poll numbers.
Paul shot back that there was “a sophomoric quality” to Trump, noting “his visceral response to attack people on their appearance.”
“My goodness, that happened in junior high,” Paul said.
Trump had a quick retort for that one at the ready. “I never attacked him on his look,” he said of Paul. “And believe me. There’s plenty of subject matter there.”
Trump and the onetime GOP frontrunner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also traded pointed shots over Bush’s charge that the famed New York real estate magnate had failed in his efforts to bring a casino to the Sunshine State.
“More energy tonight,” Trump said to Bush, whom he has criticized for being lethargic, in a mocking tone. “I like that.”
As the debate dragged on, however, these kinds of testy back-and-forth exchanges became far less frequent, and Trump largely receded into the background.
The candidates will share the stage for a third time in Colorado next month, when Trump will once again have an opportunity to show off his unique appeal to large swaths of GOP primary voters.
But on Wednesday night, at least, Trump appeared to be evolving into something slightly different than the confounding and undeniably successful showman he has always been.
When Tapper asked him what his Secret Service code name might be, in the event that he becomes president, Trump replied with his tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“Humble,” he said, as the crowd laughed along knowingly.
A self-aware Donald Trump? Now we’ve really seen it all.