CLEVELAND — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPriebus: Syria, China moves part of 'Trump Doctrine' Poll: Most millennials disapprove of Trump Trudeau calls premiers to talk US trade MORE dominated the first Republican primary debate Thursday with a performance that was pugnacious, volatile and, as ever, controversial.
Trump showed that he could take a punch, facing a number of tough questions from Fox News moderators that cited his business history, penchant for outlandish comments and erstwhile support for liberal positions.
“The answers were good, obviously, because everyone thinks I won,” Trump told the reporters who gathered around him in the “spin room” shortly after leaving the stage.
The debate featured a number of fiery moments, though they didn’t all include Trump, who early on joked that the only derogatory comments he has made about women were about the actress and comedian Rosie O’Donnell.
Another moment vying for the night’s most raucous was an antagonistic exchange between Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE (R-Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over national security.
Former Florida Gov Jeb Bush, the clear favorite among establishment Republicans, had an unremarkable night, appearing tentative and hesitant at times. On some occasions, as when defending his previous comment that illegal immigrants were acting out of “love” in coming to the United States to provide for their families, he was met with near-silence in the cavernous arena.
In other instances, Bush’s long absence from competitive politics — he last ran for election in 2002 — also seemed to show.
“In Florida, they called me Jeb because I earned it” was one early misfire, an apparently fluffed attempt to cite a line he delivered moments later about being given the nickname “Veto Corleone” while governor.
Other prominent candidates, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who currently places third in most polls, and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzKansas Republican sworn in after special election Overnight Finance: Dems want ObamaCare subsidies for extra military spending | Trade battle: Woe, Canada? | Congress nears deal to help miners | WH preps to release tax plan Cruz: Seize money from drug lords to fund border wall MORE (Texas), also struggled to gain traction. They grappled with creating a memorable moment among the 10 candidates on the stage. But Walker only deepened worries about his potentially fatal lack of dynamism.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms Rubio defends Trump: 'This whole flip-flop thing is a political thing' Rubio: Shutdown would have 'catastrophic impact' on global affairs MORE (Fla.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Christie did better. So too did Ohio Gov. John Kasich, making full use of his home state advantage at the arena of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and underling his status as a potential sleeper candidate.
But, above all, this was the Trump show — right from the start.
Bret Baier, one of the three moderators, began the debate by asking anyone unwilling to commit to backing the eventual GOP nominee to raise his hand. Trump did so, repeating his intention to possibly run as an independent.
Moments later, the only woman among the moderators, Megyn Kelly, asked him about comments he had made about women he did not like, including calling them pigs, dogs and slobs.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump shot back, to mixed boos and jeers.
It was the sort of combative, unfiltered answer that delights Trump supporters. How it will be viewed by unaffiliated Republicans — or those backing other candidates who Trump might need to win over — is uncertain.
It was a moment sure to be discussed critically by Democrats and liberal commentators in the days to come. “Among the biggest losers of tonight’s debate were American women, who were attacked at every turn,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who came to Cleveland for the debate, said in an email statement.
Trump’s refusal to rule out a third-party run — a prospect he originally raised in an exclusive interview with The Hill — will also draw ill will from the GOP. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the idea “a death wish” in the spin room immediately after the debate.
When one reporter asked whether it would spell doom for the Republican Party as well as Trump himself, Priebus said it would.
Paul also weighed in on that question at the very start of the debate, interjecting, “This is what’s wrong!” when Trump refused to commit to supporting the party's nominee.
It was not the first time that Paul, who has sunk to eighth place in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, clearly calculated that he had nothing to lose by picking a few fights. But Trump seemed to get the better of him later, when he responded to a criticism from Paul by saying “you’re having a hard time tonight.”
Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, described that as “the standout moment” of the whole debate. He added that it exemplifies the difficulty in directly engaging and confronting Trump on a debate stage.
“He delivers an especially effective counterpunch,” Kall said.
The exchange between Paul and Christie, clearly the most heated non-Trump moment of the night, came when the New Jersey governor was asked to defend an earlier criticism of the Kentuckian. Christie had suggested Paul was making the United States less safe because of his opposition to certain surveillance programs.
Paul interjected, insisting that warrantless surveillance infringed upon people's Fourth Amendment rights.
“Listen, Senator, you know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie responded.
But a moment later, Paul jabbed back with a reference to Christie’s embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead,” Paul told Christie.
Other moments inspired abundant comment, for good or ill, on social media. One example came when Huckabee extolled the virtues of a consumption tax to fund Social Security on the basis that “prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, all the people that are freeloading off the system now” would pay into it.
As the crowd began to leave the arena, it was clear that one word would be as central to the post-debate analysis as it was to the pre-game: Trump.
“Trump was bombastic and entertaining right from the start, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “His biggest error was not accepting the pledge to not run as a third-party candidate. This will haunt Trump, especially if he doesn't rebound strongly in the next debate with more substance.”