Donald Trump has been under fire for disparaging Mexicans. One of the moderators, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, wanted to ask him about his disparagement of women.
“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she began.
Trump listened impassively. Then he raised his hand in dismissive protest.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he said with emphasis.
Kelly told Trump that wasn’t true. The man leading the competition for the Republican presidential nomination brushed off her trifling facts. Ten minutes into the party’s first debate of the 2016 election cycle, the former reality star had stolen the show again.
This time, the airtime might not have helped. A post-debate Fox News focus group was uniformly unimpressed, calling Trump evasive and mean. The audience at the Cleveland arena sounded displeased.
“No clear winner, but Trump pretty clearly the loser — any number of moments that were the worst he has had in campaign and crowd not charmed,” Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, wrote on Twitter.
The rollicking 10-candidate debate offered the magnate’s nine rivals their highest-profile early opportunity for a Trumperor-has-no-clothes moment that would puncture an astonishing campaign bubble riding on bravado.
Save for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, they chose instead to avoid direct combat with an unpredictable man fond of insults. The job of challenging Trump was left to the three Fox moderators, who peppered him with substantive questions about his confounding record of policy flip-flops and his corporate opportunism.
“I don’t think they like me very much,” Trump said at one point during the intermittent interrogation.
As usual, he seemed to relish the airtime, shrugging off their queries with the contemptuous breeziness of a candidate who knows his record is not why he is popular. He responded to several questions with non sequiturs and non-explanations.
His praise for Canada’s single-payer health-care system, a government program anathema to market-friendly conservatives? It “works,” he said.
The bankruptcy of his resort casino company, a failure that left hundreds of employees out of a job? “I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City,” he boasted.
His past self-identification as a Democrat? Why, he lives in the Democratic bastion of New York, he said. But what of his past donations to Hillary Clinton? He was a businessman doling out cash in return for favours, he said.
And what favours did he get from Clinton?
“I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. She had no choice, because I gave.”
The debate offered a platform for serious candidates overshadowed by the Trump phenomenon to introduce themselves to a national audience.
The stage appeared to benefit Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who barely got into the debate after a late entry into the race, and Marco Rubio, the fresh-faced Florida senator who has lagged expectations.
Trump was positioned beside Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and the second-place candidate in the polls.
Bush, prodded about Trump, called him “divisive.” Calling for an “optimistic” campaign, he emphasized his economic record and stood by his support for a path to legal status for the 11 million residents in the country illegally.
“I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option,” Bush said. “They want to provide for their family.”
Rubio, the youngest candidate at 44, pitched himself as a candidate of change while also demonstrating an easy fluency in clashes over policy.
He attempted to frame his personal financial struggles as an advantage, saying his relatable debt story would allow him to challenge Clinton’s claim to know what is best for “everyday Americans.”
“How is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheque to paycheque? I was raised paycheque to paycheque,” he said. “How is she going to lecture me about student loans? I owed $100,000 just four years ago.”
The candidates competed to sound toughest on the Islamic State, Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama and Clinton.
And former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee competed with Trump to register the most colourful sound bite, suggesting the federal government levy a consumption tax on pimps and prostitutes and accusing abortion provider Planned Parenthood of selling the organs of aborted fetuses “like they’re parts to a Buick.”
The size of the field left top candidates silent for extended periods. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the third-place candidate, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a right-wing firebrand who was a champion debater in college, barely registered at times. Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon and the only black candidate, responded to a question from Kelly by expressing relief that he was allowed to speak again.
“There is no such thing as a politically correct war,” Carson said, accusing liberals of preferring legal niceties to victory.
Paul has faltered in the polls as he has struggled to excite the libertarian admirers of his father while also appealing to traditional conservatives. He engaged in the night’s sharpest personal exchange, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, over the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency.
Christie said the elimination of the records program would leave Americans vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Paul said the U.S. Constitution requires the government to get a warrant. Christie accused him of irresponsible bloviating. Paul brought up the time Christie hugged Obama after Hurricane Sandy. Christie brought up the hugs he shared with the families of 9/11 victims.
The seven candidates trailing in the polls were relegated to an embarrassing junior-league debate in front of an empty arena at 5 p.m. The Fox moderators added to the indignity, asking those candidates why they are so unpopular.
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina was the consensus winner. The lone woman in the race distinguished herself with polished responses on foreign affairs, crisp jabs at Clinton and Obama, and the most pointed attack from any candidate on Trump’s shape-shifting.
“Since he has changed his mind on amnesty (for illegal immigrants), on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?” Fiorina said.
Trump declined to pretend he was a loyal conservative. The senior debate began with a moderator’s challenge to the candidates to raise their hand if they would not promise to support the eventual Republican nominee.
Trump was the only one with his arm in the air. He couldn’t guarantee his support for anyone other than himself, he said.