He trampled over the moderators, Mexicans, actress Rosie O’Donnell and the Republican Party itself.
The first presidential debate Thursday night was The Donald Trump Show, and the billionaire is showing no signs of relinquishing the spotlight.
In front of Republican Party leaders, in the city where the party’s nominee will be selected in one year, Trump refused to rule out running as a third-party candidate if he does not win the nomination.
He raised his hand and shrugged as the boos rained down.
“I cannot say,” Trump said, raising the prospect of a Ross Perot-like bid Republicans fear will vault a Democrat into the White House.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., attempting to grab some of the attention for himself among the top 10 candidates in the prime-time debate, piped up to accuse Trump of “buying politicians.”
Trump replied that he gave “plenty of money” to politicians. He’s rich, if you haven’t heard.
Despite a rocky start, the developer and businessman won plenty of cheers from the crowd with his usual brashness.
Trump refused to back down from past insults toward women — saying they were mostly directed at comedienne O’Donnell — and Mexicans. He parried a dissection of the times his companies filed for bankruptcy by bad-mouthing Atlantic City, N.J., and mentioning once again how rich he is.
“I don’t think they like me very much,” he said at one point, gesturing toward the moderators.
But plenty of people do.
Trump dominates national Republican primary polls, and a Channel 2 Action News survey released Thursday showed the same story in Georgia, where Trump takes 34 percent of the vote, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 12 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 10 percent.
The strategy was simple for most of the candidates: Get out of the way.
“Donald Trump’s hitting a nerve in this country,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who enjoyed a home-court advantage with the thousands-strong crowd in Quicken Loans Arena. “People are frustrated, they’re fed up. … People who want to just tune him out, they make a mistake.”
The most heated exchange of the night came between Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over the Patriot Act. Paul has worked to restrict the federal government’s surveillance powers because, he said, he does not trust President Barack Obama with the information. Christie said the powers are crucial to fight terrorism.
Paul jabbed back by mentioning Christie’s conduct seeking aid after Hurricane Sandy.
“I know you gave (Obama) a big hug,” Paul said. “And if you want to give him a big hug again, go right for it.”
Christie shot back: “The hugs I remember are the hugs I gave to the people who lost their families on 9/11.”
The moderators picked apart the records of many of the candidates. They pressed Bush on immigration, an issue that divides him from the base.
Bush said he supports a path to legal status because “the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option and want to provide for their family.”
The son and brother of presidents also shrugged off Bush fatigue.
“I’m going to have to earn this,” he said. “Maybe the bar’s even higher for me. That’s fine.”
Other key candidates were smooth, but it was hard to have a breakout moment on such a crowded stage. At one point, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio drew big cheers with a passionate anti-abortion riff: “Future generations will look back and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies.”
The remaining seven Republican candidates in this historically large field debated earlier in the day, their relegation to the “kids’ table” determined by their lower standing in recent national polls.
The moderators began by kicking the candidates while they were down, sharply questioning why they were even running because they are not getting any polling traction.
The candidate with the most to prove was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who narrowly missed the top 10 and had his 2012 bid undone by a series of debate miscues — most notably his “oops” moment, when he forgot the name of a federal agency he wanted to eliminate.
Perry, now better-studied and wearing glasses, showed more polish this time but still had some awkward moments. For example, he began one answer saying “Americans are tired of hearing this debate — want to go to, what are you going to do about illegal immigration? For 30 years this country has been baited with that.”
The post-early-debate buzz was all about businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who gave sharp answers and came off as knowledgeable. She also took the chance, when offered, to whack Trump in absentia.
“Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?” Fiorina said of the polling leader.
Ten of the candidates now head from Cleveland to Atlanta to take part in the RedState Gathering of conservative activists in Buckhead. Friday’s speakers are Christie, Fiorina, Perry, Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Trump is the Saturday night headliner at the College Football Hall of Fame.
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