CLEVELAND: Bombastic, comical, provocative: Donald Trump, the billionaire leading the Republican primary race, offered the best and worst of himself Thursday as opponents strained to offer more gravitas in the first major debate of the 2016 campaign. Flanked by nine rivals who trail him in the polls, the real estate mogul immediately set himself apart when he was the only candidate on stage to refuse to pledge that he would back the Republican nominee and not run for president as an independent if he loses the party primary. “I will not make the pledge at this time,” the improbable frontrunner said, to loud boos and jeers from a rambunctious crowd.
It was an extraordinary start to the party’s quest to choose a flag bearer for the 2016 race to succeed President Barack Obama, only six months ahead of the first primary votes. By the time the event was over Trump had called US leaders and politicians “stupid,” claimed he had given money to most of the candidates on the stage as well as to top Democrat Hillary Clinton, clashed with Senator Rand Paul and moderators, and said he had no time for “political correctness”.
With 17 major Republican candidates in contention, broadcaster Fox News split the debate into two parts, with bottom-tier hopefuls trading barbs in a separate forum ahead of the prime-time event. Trump’s unapologetic, off-script style offends some but has set him apart from a packed field of hopefuls furiously trying to garner the same level of attention. “Donald Trump’s hitting a nerve in this country,” admitted his rival, Ohio Governor John Kasich, during the main event. “For people who want to just tune him out, they’re making a mistake.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush acknowledged that the bar is likely higher for him in 2016, being the son and brother of two presidents. But he insisted once more that he is his own man with his own policies. “I’m going to have to earn this,” Bush said. He also stood by his earlier remark that immigrants breaking the law to come to the United States did so as an “act of love”. Bush accused Trump of using “divisive” language and warning such verbal sniping will not help Republicans win the White House.
The candidates, each looking for a breakout moment, also focused their ire on former secretary of state Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. “If Hillary is the candidate, which I doubt, that would be a dream come true,” said neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the only African-American candidate in the field. “She is the epitome of the progressive, the secular progressive movement.”
During a combustible performance, Trump fired off insults at Paul, Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly, comedian Rosie O’Donnell, the Mexican government and an assortment of other targets. He tangled with Kelly when she pressed him about past derogatory comments he had made about women, including calling them “fat pigs”, “dogs” and “slobs”, Trump dismissed the question as “political correctness”. He accused Kelly of not treating him well, drawing more boos from the audience. “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,” Trump, whose base of support is overwhelmingly male, said to a mixture of boos and applause.
Candidates at both the main event and on the debate undercard sought to make an impression on voters – and many aimed at Obama, Clinton and Trump. They offered withering attacks on Obama’s handling of the Islamic State group; vowed tougher immigration policy; pledged to toe the conservative line on social issues; and stressed they would shred a nuclear deal with Iran on day one of a Republican presidency. “Under President Obama and Secretary Clinton, they’re working hard to change the American dream into the European nightmare,” said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, one of seven candidates on stage for the early forum.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief, accused Trump of cozying up to the Clintons and slammed him for flip-flopping. “Since he has changed his mind on (immigration) amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask what are the principles by which he will govern?” asked Fiorina, who was seen as a top performer in the early event.
Trump fired up the immigration debate and infuriated Hispanics in June when he said Mexican immigrants are bringing drugs and crime to the US. “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration,” Trump said Thursday. Things heated up early when Trump was accused of buying politicians. “He buys and sells politicians of all stripes,” Paul said at the beginning of the debate. It was a claim Trump wasn’t particularly keen to refute. When asked by a moderator about the issue, he gladly acknowledged it. “You’d better believe it,” Trump said. “Most of the people on this stage I’ve given to, just so you understand, a lot of money,” he said.
Despite the occasional on-stage acrimony, the Republican party welcomed the wide array of candidates on display Thursday. “We’re proud to have a deep bench of candidates, and we’re grateful that tonight’s debates were the most inclusive in the history of either party,” party chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement, comparing it to the much more limited Democratic party field. The candidates in Thursday’s main debate were: Trump, Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Carson, libertarian Kentucky senator Rand Paul, Kasich, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. – Agencies