Republicans race out of the gate at main debate, Trump at the center
CLEVELAND -- The leading Republican presidential candidates used their first face-to-face encounter Thursday night to accuse Donald Trump -- and one another -- of diverging from conservative principles as they tried to reverse the surprising domi...
CLEVELAND - The leading Republican presidential candidates used their first face-to-face encounter Thursday night to accuse Donald Trump - and one another - of diverging from conservative principles as they tried to reverse the surprising dominance of the billionaire celebrity and gain a foothold in the crowded race.
Trump made news at the first party-sanctioned debate before even uttering a single word. When a moderator asked candidates whether they would pledge to support whoever ultimately won the party’s nomination for president, as well as rule out an independent bid, Trump raised his hand to indicate he wouldn’t.
"I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee," he said. But when pressed, he repeated: "I will not make the pledge at this time."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was quick to attack Trump, saying he was "already hedging his bets because he’s used to buying politicians."
The exchange was just the first in what quickly became a contentious prime-time debate at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena featuring the 10 Republican candidates leading in national polling. An earlier forum featured seven Republicans at the back of the pack.
For most Americans who have not immersed themselves in the machinations of an election still more than 15 months away, it was the best look yet at the Republicans hoping to prevent a third consecutive Democratic presidential term.
Trump’s unexpected and surprisingly enduring surge complicated the best-laid plans of many of the ambitious longtime officeholders. Some came prepared to challenge Trump, while others sought to build off his appeal to those who have responded to his blunt and often controversial statements about immigration and the failures of Washington.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who barely qualified for the main debate as the candidate in 10th place in national polling, said Trump had hit a nerve, and those "who want to just tune him out, they’re making a mistake."
"Now, he’s got his solutions. Some of us have other solutions," he said, before discussing his record as a governor and congressman.
Trump also sparred with moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News Channel, who asked him whether his past comments on women made him unelectable, particularly if he was pitted in the general election against Hillary Clinton.
"I frankly don’t have time for total political correctness," he said. "And honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had been seen as the party’s most likely nominee earlier in the campaign, sought to regain his footing after comments on immigration, women’s health and the Iraq war that had made him a target on both the left and right.
"I governed as a conservative, and I govern effectively," he said. "We left the state better off because I applied conservative principles in a purple state the right way, and people rose up."
For their parts, Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie engaged in perhaps the night’s most bitter exchange, on whether Americans’ civil liberties were violated by government surveillance programs. Christie, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted terrorism cases, accused Paul of "just blowing hot air" on the issue for political convenience. Paul countered by recalling the "big hug" Christie shared with President Barack Obama late in the 2012 campaign, when he visited the state in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Trump was also prominently featured in the earlier forum among seven trailing candidates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry directly accused Trump of "using his celebrity rather than his conservatism." Former HP executive Carly Fiorina acknowledged his front-runner status, saying he’s tapped into Americans’ frustration with "politics as usual."
"I would also just say this," she added. "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?"
The field also delivered withering attacks for Clinton, often pairing her with Obama.
"Under President Obama and Secretary Clinton, they’re working hard to change the American dream into the European nightmare," said Gov. Bobby Jindal. "Give Bernie Sanders credit. At least he’s honest enough to call himself a socialist."
In both events, some of the questioning was tough on candidates, homing in on perceived weaknesses and questioning their viability.
Bush was asked about prior comments on immigration reform and the war in Iraq. At the forum, Jindal was quizzed about his poor poll numbers at home. Former New York Gov. George Pataki was asked why, as the only Republican candidate who supports abortion rights, he thought he could win.
Early reviews of the first event favored Fiorina, whose polished performance has for now erased the memory of her lopsided loss in the 2010 California Senate race.
"She was very articulate, very forceful," said John Hancock, the Missouri state GOP chairman, who watched the forum on TV before heading over to Quicken Loans Arena for dinner and the final debate. "I expected one or maybe two of those candidates in the early debate to emerge, and I think she’s definitely on that list of candidates that’s going to emerge out of that and get a very serious look by the voters."
The back-to-back events are a product of the Republican National Committee’s efforts to regain some measure of control over the debate process after 2012, when many in the party thought the endless string of televised events ultimately worked against it and the eventual nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.