Bombastic, comical, provocative: Donald Trump, the billionaire leading the Republican primary race, offered the best and worst of himself on Thursday as opponents strained to offer more gravitas in the first major debate of the presidential 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 next year’s race to succeed US 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 Rodham Clinton, clashed with US 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,” Ohio Governor John Kasich said during the main event. “For people who want to just tune him out, they are making a mistake.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush acknowledged that the bar is likely higher for him next year, being the son and brother of two former presidents. However, he added that he is his own man with his own policies.
“I am going to have to earn this,” Bush said.
He also stood by his earlier remark that immigrants breaking the law to go to the US did so as an “act of love.”
Bush accused Trump of using “divisive” language, warning that such verbal sniping would not help Republicans win the White House.
The candidates, each looking for a breakout moment, also focused their ire on former US 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.”
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, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; 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 ... Clinton, they are 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.
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