GOP candidates win, moderators lose

It was clear from the opening bell of Thursday evening's two-hour prime-time Republican presidential debate that the three Fox News moderators — Megyn Kelly, Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Scarborough: 'What a joke' for Pompeo to say Fox's Wallace asks ridiculous questions MORE and Bret Baier — were out to make news and force mistakes, rather than inform voters about the qualifications and qualities of the 10 candidates on stage.

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The first question, obviously crafted to put poll-leader Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE on the spot, was whether anyone on stage was unwilling to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign. It produced the desired effect, a headline: "Trump refuses to rule out third-party run."

But there is nothing new there. He said it before, more than once.

From there, the panel tried a bunch of gotcha questions that, instead of tripping up the candidates, allowed them to score points with a public just beginning to pay attention to the race and eager to know more about this huge 17-member GOP field.

Questioners tried to pit the two Florida contenders and friends, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments MORE, against one another.

"Explain why you are better than Bush," Rubio was essentially asked. He didn't take the bait by attacking Bush; instead, he boasted of his own record battling Democrats.

Later, Rubio was asked why Bush was wrong in supporting Common Core curriculum standards for public schools. Rather than put down Bush, he just said he was afraid the federal government would turn Common Core standards into mandates that might not be appropriate for all states.

Unable to corner Rubio, the panel turned to Bush, asking him to defend the family name against the records of his brother and father, a question he's been asked many times before. And his answer was the same: "I am my own man."

Were they hoping for a denunciation of his family?

And so it went — candidates won, moderators were thwarted.

When it was Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions MORE's turn, he was asked why he has been so quick to criticize his own party, an attempt to set him up, like Trump, as the skunk at the garden party. Paul battled back. Later, Paul was matched against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a mini-debate over civil liberties with regard to government collection of phone records to combat terrorism. Paul is against it. Christie, a federal prosecutor in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, disagreed forcefully, saying you can protect civil liberties and still protect the homeland.

Before noted neurosurgeon Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHousing authorities raise concerns about Trump plan to evict undocumented immigrants Housing authorities raise concerns about Trump plan to evict undocumented immigrants Moulton confirms he'll miss first Democratic debate MORE was asked a question about his lack of political experience, he had to listen to a moderator recite a litany of political faux pas he made on the campaign trail. He responded by saying he is a quick learner: "The most important thing is having a brain, and to be able to figure things out and learn things very rapidly."

Later, he was asked another gotcha: Would he bring back waterboarding as an interrogation method to extract information from captured terrorists?

Not falling into the trap, Carson replied that he would be foolish to broadcast to the enemy what he would or would not do. But he did offer a hint: "There's no such thing as a politically correct war."

The first question to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, one of the early front-runners on the strength of his ability to win repeated showdowns with public employee unions, was why he was opposed to abortion even if the life of the mother was at stake.

"Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?" Kelly asked.

Walker responded with a vigorous defense of his pro-life stands, which he contrasted to the pro-choice views of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

"I've said many a time that [an] unborn child can be protected," he said.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was also asked to assess his electability, given his strong stand against abortion. Huckabee responded with a passionate defense of the unborn. He said he would shield them under the Equal Protection Clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments.

Later, the moderators tried to trip up Walker again by accusing him of backtracking on his once more-liberal stand on immigration policy. He attributed alteration of his position to listening to what the public had to say on the issue.

"I think people across America want a leader who's actually going to listen to them," Walker said.

The fiery and outspoken Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias GOP lawmaker delays House for second week GOP lawmaker delays House for second week MORE was asked how he could expect to win while being such a "divisive figure."

Cruz was ready: "People are looking for someone to speak the truth," he snapped. "If you are looking for someone ... to go along to get along ... then I ain't your guy."

The wisdom of Ohio Gov. John Kasich in accepting Medicaid under ObamaCare was questioned by the panel in light of the fact that most Republican governors were rejecting it. Kasich came back with a spirited defense, saying it was helping prisoners and the working poor get much-needed medical care and that he had nothing to apologize for.

Earlier in the day, the second tier of Republican candidates debated. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Texas Gov. Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Defense: Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy | Trump, Macron downplay rift on Iran | Trump mourns West Point cadet's death in accident | Pentagon closes review of deadly Niger ambush Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' MORE were the consensus winners of that one.

There were no clear winners in the main event, but the public got a much-needed chance to see the candidates side by side and on their feet. One thing learned by the moderators is that these guys and girl are not pushovers. The race is on.

Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.