It was the most dramatic opening to a presidential debate in recent memory—and Donald Trump stole the show before he’d even said a word.
Perched comfortably at the top of the polls and lapping his closest rivals by double digits, Trump was expected to do well at the first GOP presidential debate of the 2016 season on Thursday night. The onus was on his competitors to seize the spotlight, but none of them managed to change the dynamics in a race that Trump has dominated for more than a month.
Many contenders delivered strong performances and polished answers. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio showed his formidable political skills and compelling personal narrative. Ohio Gov. John Kasich gave crisp answers as he played to his home state audience. And Rand Paul and Chris Christie slammed each other during an impassioned debate over government surveillance.
For more than a month, Trump has defied the normal patterns of politics and Thursday night was no exception. But it was harder to tell how his answers would wear on voters over time, particularly when matched — as he was Thursday night — with nine other contenders who have strong resumes and far more detailed policy plans.
None of contenders made noticeable blunders. But none of them could outshine Trump.
That was true with the most uncomfortable questions. Though it was Trump’s first political debate—and perhaps one of his first experiences with time constraints and a buzzer—Trump navigated the debate stage with ease, even when faced with unexpectedly sharp questions like the first from Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly.
“One of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter,” Kelly said to Trump in the opening minutes. “However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interjected to laughter.
“For the record, it was well beyond Rosie,” Kelly shot back, noting that Trump had told one contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” that it would be a pretty picture to “see her on her knees.” “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” Kelly asked.
Setting the tone for the debate, Trump didn’t flinch and didn’t apologize.
“I think the big problem this country has — is being politically correct,” he said, channeling the appeal that has catapulted him to the top of the polls.
“And I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
He brushed off some of his harsher commentary as “fun” remarks that were made in jest: “We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry.”
Trump launched an offensive against Kelly on Friday, making a series of posts on Twitter saying she “really bombed” and that she “was not very good or professional.”
Trump’s no-holds-barred performance and comments about women could represent a missed opportunity to broaden his appeal. But the biggest risk the unpredictable real estate magnate took Thursday night was when he refused to rule out a third party presidential run that could spell defeat for the Republican Party.
Fox Moderator Bret Baier had asked anyone who wouldn’t pledge not to run as an independent to raise their hand. Only Trump did.
The audience booed. Rand Paul started shouting insults. Trump basically shrugged them off.
“I want to win as a Republican, I want to run as the Republican nominee,” Trump told Baier. “I will not make the pledge at this time.”
Many Republican stalwarts may have recoiled at that answer, and it is certain to cost him votes among the hard core GOP voters who most reliably show up for the primaries. But it is virtually impossible to tell with any certainty how many voters will hold that against Trump at a time when many view both parties with contempt and frustration.
Trump continued to give very few specifics about his plans, or the evidence for his claims about Mexican immigrants, for example. And when challenged on flipping on his position on abortion, Trump uttered words that make most politicians shiver: “I’ve evolved.”
He sounded cavalier and somewhat callous when confronted with a question about the bankruptcy of one of his companies in Atlantic City that led to the loss of more than 1,000 jobs. Once again, Trump made no apologies, and pivoted to take a dig at Christie, noting New Jersey’s economic troubles.
“I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City, which by the way, Caesars just went bankrupt. Every company — Chris [Christie] can tell you — every company virtually in Atlantic City went bankrupt,” Trump said. “I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered, and I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, and I’m very proud of it…. By the way, this country right now owes $19 trillion. And they need somebody like me to straighten out that mess.”
With the exception of Rand Paul, who may have won some fans by taking on Trump vigorously and repeatedly, the other candidates handled Trump gently, wary perhaps of alienating the voters who are attracted to his blunt brand of politics.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had an uneven performance, but did not appear to make any major mistakes, denied reports that he had called Trump a “clown” and another expletive in a private conversation, but admitted that he had taken issue with Trump’s harsh tone in his announcement speech.
In response to that gentle reproach from Bush, Trump chose to be magnanimous to the former governor, who he has attacked on the campaign trail — even going to so far as to call him a gentleman.
Beyond Trump, other standouts were Paul, a once formidable candidate who peaked the interest of Republican voters and then receded, Christie, who has fallen from favor in the wake of the George Washington Bridge scandal, and Kasich, who drew an enthusiastic welcome from a home-state audience.
Paul and Christie tangled in a passionate debate over government surveillance that highlighted the wide gulf in the Republican Party between libertarian-leaning Republicans like the Kentucky senator and national security hawks like the New Jersey governor.
Christie was asked about his criticism of Paul’s objections to the NSA’s collection of phone records and his statement that the Kentucky senator should be called before Congress to answer for it if the U.S. was hit by a terrorist attack.
It gave Christie an opening to highlight his work as a federal prosecutor who has “prosecuted, investigated and jailed terrorists in this country after September 11th.”
When Paul replied that he wanted to collect “more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans,” Christie dismissed his statement as “a completely ridiculous answer,” at one point accusing Paul of sitting in a subcommittee in the Senate “blowing hot air.” Paul parried back by reminding Republican primary voters of the fact that Christie hugged President Obama after super storm Sandy.
Before the hug debate, it was a substantive exchange over policy. But at this point in the Republican race it’s unclear how many voters will pay attention. As long as Trump is in the race, many may just be tuned in for the show.