Let the sparks fly: Donald Trump at center stage

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SIMI VALLEY, California (CNN) — Donald Trump’s rivals are done tiptoeing around the bombastic businessman.

In the initial moments of tonight’s prime-time Republican presidential debate on CNN, several of Trump’s rivals leveled heated criticism at the front-runner.

“Do we really want someone with that kind of character?” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “There’s a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump,” Paul added, scolding Trump for going after people’s appearance.

Trump responded by doing what he does best: attack.

“I never attacked him on his looks and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter right there,” Trump said to Paul.

Other candidates quickly jumped in.

“We don’t need an apprentice in the White House — we have one right now,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, labeled Trump a “wonderful entertainer,” before promising that the 2016 campaign would reveal the “judgment and temperament of every single one of us.”

And soon enough, the fireworks were flying between Trump and Jeb Bush.

The former Florida governor, who has a lot riding at this CNN debate with his poll numbers stalled, accused Trump of buying influence.

“You got Hillary Clinton to go to your wedding,” Bush said.

Trump and Fiorina had a more tense exchange later in the debate when Fiorina was asked about the front-runner’s recent controversial remarks about her looks.

In a Rolling Stone interview, Trump said of Fiorina: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

On the debate stage tonight, Fiorina said: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

In a rare move for Trump, he declined to hit back.

“I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” he said.

The exchanges marked a shift in tone for Republican candidates since the last debate in August, when they were more hesitant to take him on directly. By Wednesday, those reservations were gone, a sign of how seriously Trump’s competitors are taking his candidacy after he shocked the political world over the summer by dominating the primary battle.

The debate comes as Trump is suddenly facing stiff competition from retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is surging in the polls. Still, the debate was emerging as a fight between Trump, Fiorina, Bush and Paul.

Fiorina, whose breakout performance at last month’s debate helped her land a spot in tonight’s main debate, is intent on upstaging Trump.

Trump has attacked Fiorina’s business record at Hewlett-Packard while she has slammed Trump for being light on substance.

Bush may have the most at stake. Despite his $100 million bank account and record as a two-term governor running one of the country’s largest — and most complex — states, Bush is tumbling in the polls.

The debate served as a forum for several candidates to speak passionately about Planned Parenthood and vow to defund the group in the wake of controversial and highly edited videos of organization officials discussing the sale of aborted fetal parts.

“These Planned Parenthood videos are horrifying,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, as he accused the organization of trying to “sell the body parts of unborn children for profit.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie retorted: “Let’s ask Hillary Clinton. She believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb.”

Fiorina used even more graphic language.

“Watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table. Its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” she said.

At the earlier debate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum debated thorny political issues like immigration — an issue Trump has made central part of his campaign rhetoric — and national security.

When the conversation turned to the controversial issue of “birthright citizenship,” Graham said there were certain “rich Asians, rich people from the Mideast” that were “bastardizing citizenship.”

Jindal, meanwhile, defended his policy views on immigration, repeatedly asserting that he did not support amnesty.

In another heated exchange, Pataki and Santorum butted heads about a Kentucky county clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The woman, Kim Davis, has reignited a national debate about a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.

Santorum called the Supreme Court ruling “unconstitutional,” and said there is no more important right than the ability for a citizen to freely exercise his or her conscience.

But Pataki said he would have fired Davis for violating the law.

“I didn’t agree with the Supreme Court’s decision but it is the law of the land,” Pataki said.

While the four candidates traded barbs over numerous issues, there were also calls for the GOP to focus on the ultimate prize of taking back the White House.

“If it is Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders (that becomes president), they’re going to pick people we’re going to disagree with all the time,” Graham said in reference to Supreme Court nominations. “Please understand that we have to win this election.”

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