Donald Trump's Teflon started to wear thin at Wednesday night's Republican presidential primary debate.
Marco Rubio schooled him on foreign policy, Jeb Bush said the tough-talking real-estate mogul's inexperience would be "really dangerous," and Carly Fiorina took Trump to task for mocking her looks.
None of them could take down the bully of the presidential primary schoolyard alone, but they ganged up on Trump and got their licks in Wednesday night. It was the moment the Republican field turned on Trump.
And it happened on a night when Trump, for the first time, faced an onslaught of serious policy questions that revealed his lack of preparation. At the Fox debate in Cleveland last month, it was all about Trump and his persona. And that's his comfort zone. But as CNN pushed him more on policy, Trump tripped.
While it remains to be seen whether the front-runner's numbers will plummet — or perhaps even rise — the rest of the Republicans emphatically declared that they're not going to tip-toe around Trump anymore. Moreover, it was the first time that Trump looked out of his element in a campaign that has been The Donald show since he entered race.
Trump likes to say he's a big winner. But, on substance and style, he was the loser of Wednesday night's debate. It wasn't even close.
Trump's nuclear codes problem
Historically, there's no threshold question more important in presidential debates than whether a candidate can be trusted with nuclear launch codes. It's a question that voters want to be able to answer affirmatively before they put a candidate in the Oval Office.
CNN's Jake Tapper opened up the debate by asking Carly Fiorina whether she would "feel comfortable with Donald trump's finger on the nuclear codes." Fiorina dodged, saying that's up to voters.
Trump, pausing first to insult Sen. Rand Paul, responded that "my temperament is very good, very calm."
That allowed Tapper to call on Paul. With relish, Paul pointed to Trump's penchant for lobbing "junior high school insults" and asked "Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?"
When his turn came, Bush followed Fiorina's lead and declined to say whether he would be OK with Trump in charge of a nuclear arsenal. The trifecta of Fiorina, Bush and Paul delivered an understated but clear rebuke of Trump on the most important bar he would have to clear in voters' minds to win the presidency. It was an inauspicious beginning for Trump and an early indication that most of his rivals would form a phalanx against him.
Tangling with Rubio on foreign policy
If there's any candidate Trump wouldn't want to get into a foreign policy debate with, it's Rubio. The first-term Florida senator has served on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, and he's knowledgeable enough about the world to make most lawmakers — much less businessmen — look under-educated on global affairs.
Rubio tangled with Trump with midway through the debate and suggested Trump isn't ready to be president.
"These are extraordinarily dangerous times that we live in. And the next president of the United States better be someone that understands these issues and has good judgment about them because the number one issue that a president will ever confront, and the most important obligation that the federal government has, is to keep this nation safe," Rubio said confidently.
"Are you saying that you have the knowledge to be the president that Mr. Trump does not have?" Tapper asked.
"Well, you should ask him questions in detail about the foreign policy issues our president will confront, because you had better be able to lead our country on the first day," Rubio said. "Not six months from now, not a year from now, on the first day in office, our president could very well confront a national security crisis. You can't predict it. Sometimes you cannot control it."
Trump was left to argue that Rubio had an unfair advantage because he's been dealing with foreign policy in the Senate and that Trump could study up by the time of his prospective inauguration.
"I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit, and you look at what's going in this world right now by people that supposedly know, this world is a mess," Trump said.
Admitting he's not up to snuff now was hardly Trump's best moment in the campaign.
VIDEO: Trump on Putin and Syria
Trump got his comeuppance from Fiorina, Bush and Christie
If Trump had just taken knocks on policy, he might have escaped without the loser title. But his opponents, with an assist from Tapper, used Trump's words against him to make him look like an unsympathetic bully.
There was no question heading into the debate that Fiorina would be asked about a Rolling Stone story in which Trump made fun of her face.
When the anchor throws to Carly Fiorina for her reaction to Trump's momentum, Trump's expression sours in schoolboy disgust as the camera bores in on Fiorina. "Look at that face!" he cries. "Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!" The laughter grows halting and faint behind him. "I mean, she's a woman, and I'm not s'posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?"
"Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona," Tapper said to Fiorina.
Fiorina lit up, knowing she had Trump where she wanted him.
"I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," she responded, as Trump winced a bit.
Bush whacked Trump for saying Bush has a soft spot for immigrants because his wife was born in Mexico — and for having poor foreign policy judgment. Bush put Trump on the spot by inviting Trump to apologize to his wife, who was sitting in the audience.
Trump declined to apologize. "I've said nothing wrong," he said.
Later, Bush turned to Trump's approach to the Iran nuclear deal to portray Trump as the wrong choice for Republicans.
Here's the facts: When Donald Trump talks about judgment, what was his position on who would've been the best negotiator to deal with Iran? It wasn't a Republican; it was Hillary Clinton. That's what you believe. I mean, the lack of judgment and the lack of understanding about how the world works is really dangerous in this kind of time.
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has his own reputation for bullying, tried to get into the Trump-scolding act. He went after Trump and Fiorina for a back and forth over their business careers.
"Stop playing the games," Christie said.
Trump tripped over himself repeatedly
While Trump was able to give bits and pieces of a platform, he failed to answer some pretty basic questions about policy. None of it was "gotcha" stuff. Instead, CNN forced Trump to do something he didn't have to in the Fox debate last month: Get serious about substance.
Tapper asked Trump what he would do to get Russia out of Syria's civil war.
"I will get along with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable world," Trump said. Tapper noted that reaching out to Putin fell short of other Republicans' strategies for dealing with Russia.
One of the moderators, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, asked who Trump would surround himself with as foreign policy advisers. Trump declined to name anyone.
One person who thought Trump did well, though, was Trump. He said after the debate, the second of the primary season, that he felt he did well for a second time Wednesday night.
"I'm very happy with both performances, actually," he said on CNN after the debate.
At this point, it wouldn't be a shock if Trump kept bucking convention and remained the leader in Republican primary polls. But after months of knocking away his rivals like fleas on a lion, Trump looked vulnerable Wednesday night.