Trump-inspired debate drama highlights unsettled GOP field

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Aug. 6, 2015 | AP Photo by John Minchillo, St. George News

CLEVELAND (AP) — It took just one question for chaos to erupt in Cleveland.

“Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person,” asked Fox News’ Bret Baier to kick off the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign for president.

Only one hand went up, and with it, billionaire businessman Donald Trump sparked fresh waves of anxiety within the GOP as he went on to headline a debate that at times felt more like a circus than a forum for those who aspire to the White House.

The primetime ruckus on national television overshadowed some of the GOP’s biggest stars, while creating fresh openings for others. But more than anything else, Thursday night’s two-hour show — and Trump’s presence made sure it was a show — was an in-your-face reminder the race for Republican nomination remains leaderless and unsettled.

The yelling erupted just minutes into the debate, when Trump answered Baier’s question and refused to rule out a third-party bid should one of his many rivals beat him in the Republican contest.

“This is what’s wrong!” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul shouted from across the stage as the crowd booed Trump. “Maybe he runs as an independent. He’s already hedging his bets.”

The extraordinary opening moment set the tone for a night that was often entertaining, but often lacked the substantive and civil debate Republican officials had in mind when they tweaked their debate system to reduce acts of “Republican-on-Republican violence.”

The reason why was all too clear.

“I think he’s getting to a good place. This is new for him,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus when peppered after the debate with questions about Trump’s bombastic performance. “I think things are going to be just fine.”

It didn’t look that way during the rough-and-tumble start, when Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his calling “women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.'”

Trump didn’t deny it. And when Kelly was undeterred by his attempt to laugh off her question with a joke about comedian Rosie O’Donnell, he fired back.

I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” Trump said. “And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

Trump’s performance cooled down as the debate went on, but it still left little room for his Republican rivals to stand out on a night where each appeared to arrive with a clear strategy to do just that.

An authoritative Florida Sen. Marco Rubio distinguished himself by highlighting his foreign policy bona fides and moving personal story. Perhaps no one made more of his opportunities than home-state Gov. John Kasich, the two-term Ohio governor who snuck into the debate as the last candidate to win a place on stage.

Kasich drew repeated applause, particularly when showcasing his pragmatic approach to divisive social issues.

“I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay,” Kasich said when the conversation shifted to gay marriage. “Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them.”

Not everyone was as successful at making the most of the limited amount of time they had to speak.

In his first opportunity to connect with a national audience, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker safely and calmly stuck to his script and his everyman image — and didn’t produce a single “wow” moment.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a champion college debater, was largely forgotten. His night was encapsulated by the moment he asked to “jump in on this one” — only to be told there wasn’t time.

Tea party favorite Ben Carson was relegated to telling jokes, which, it should be said, drew heartfelt laughs from the crowd at Quicken Loans Arena.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie flashed his tell-it-like-it-is style in a blunt exchange with Paul, but also disappeared for long stretches of the night.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the dominant front-runner in the all-important money race, tried to rise above the Trump-related squabbling. Having devoted several days to debate preparation, he came off as scripted in what was his first formal debate in more than a decade.

But Bush also avoided any major mistakes. He held fast to his policy priorities, such as an immigration overhaul, and engaged with Trump only briefly.

“Mr. Trump’s language is divisive,” Bush said.

“I want to win,” he continued. “We’re going to win when we unite people with a hopeful, optimistic message.”

Thursday’s affair was the first of only six Republican debates before voting begins next February, a sharp reduction in the number of face-to-face meetings from 2012. And with fewer debates, there are fewer opportunities for candidates to make their mark.

Yet no candidate will leave the race after this first clash. With money flowing freely to the outside groups known as super PACs, almost everyone in the race is backed by the money needed to spend on infrastructure and advertising that will shape — and reshape — voter’s attitudes in the coming months.

That includes even the self-funded Trump, who may stick around longer than some people in the party may prefer. Republican strategist Liz Mair said the debate “has done Trump a tremendous disservice for exposing him for exactly what he is — a philosophically ungrounded, unappealing entertainer.”

The former reality television star doesn’t much seem to mind.

I don’t think they like me very much,” he said of the debate audience. With a shrug.

Written by STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • fun bag August 7, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    What a fricken clown show. The R-party seems to have no direction at all. The only direction they’ve had for the last 8 years has been there collective hatred for “the liberal socialist” in office. Why do you mormons support a politcal party made up entirely of slimy corrupt morons?…

    • Brian August 7, 2015 at 2:34 pm

      As opposed to the liberal slimy corrupt morons? Ever hear of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden? Pot, meet Kettle.

      • fun bag August 7, 2015 at 3:01 pm

        far from ideal, but still the lesser evils by far, Bri

        • mesaman August 7, 2015 at 11:49 pm

          You must have been educated in one of the middle eastern countries, fungus. The lesser of two evils when the final choice might be one of the non-politician candidates. No, you would have to be both illiterate and stupid to equate Dr Ben Carson with Hildebeast Clinton.

          • 42214 August 8, 2015 at 1:47 pm

            Mesa, you can’t like Dr Carson, he’s black. That would violate all your stated values of bigotry.

          • mesaman August 8, 2015 at 3:49 pm

            42 IQ, kiss my what?

  • AnnieMated August 7, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    I like Donald Trump. I can’t say that I agree with all of his policies but I like the fact that he isn’t afraid to call a fat person fat. Of all the Republicans running, he is clearly the best choice for the Republican nomination and I hope he wins it. Unfortunately, I don’t think he will because, well, calling a fat person fat in a room full of fat people doesn’t make you the most popular guy in the room.

    • Guess who August 7, 2015 at 2:55 pm

      I wonder what that neighborhood blowhard REAL LIFE DORK has to spew from his uneducated mouth about this article hmmmmm.?

  • Leo August 7, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Fun bag, were you on the right channel?

  • fun bag August 7, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    it’s the same old regurgitated R-party platforms they’ve droned on with for years. What good has the R-party actually done for anyone? and don’t say: “they kept Obama from takin’ all the guns!”

    • mesaman August 7, 2015 at 11:53 pm

      Same old tired rhetoric and whiney conclusions. It’s a shame to go through life believing all the socialist propaganda you’ve been feeding on. There are several other channels on your TV besides MSNBC. Buy a tuner and enjoy something enlightening, like Family Guy or The Cait Show.

      • 42214 August 8, 2015 at 10:45 am

        Mesa, I knew you’d recommend the Cait show, it’s so you.

      • jaybird August 8, 2015 at 11:16 am

        Hey MESAMAN: guess it takes one to know one. Blowhard.

        • mesaman August 8, 2015 at 3:51 pm

          Which rock did you climb out from under, Birdbutt?

          • 42214 August 8, 2015 at 5:44 pm

            The seer stones.

  • Guess who August 7, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    They kept Obama from takin all the guns

  • An actual Independent August 7, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    I think I’m casting a write in vote for Megyn Kelly.

  • 42214 August 8, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    What other candidate would be asked about a third party run with a 14% lead over a field of 17? Bush, Rand, Rubio, nobody would be painted into a corner like that this early and with a lead in the polls like his. Plus, Trump was just dis-invited to the Atlanta conservative meeting over a comment he made about Megyn Kelly. The GOP is literally pushing Trump to a 3rd party run by not respecting him as a serious candidate which is what he asks for . News flash, GOP being stupid.

    • mesaman August 8, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      So vote for Hildebeast and enjoy your socialist prez, 42

      • 42214 August 8, 2015 at 4:14 pm

        Seriously mesa,where in my prior post did I support Clinton. I defended Trump for being disrespected by GOP re: 3rd party run and being barred from Atlanta conference. Do you read these or just spew your ignorance in a knee jerk response? By the way, go to the Paws article, you got ripped. It was great.

  • 42214 August 8, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Mesa, it’s Sunday, shouldn’t you be at Temple? Did you teach at Eaglegate or Dixie JC? Just curious.

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