The first GOP presidential debate of the nominating season Thursday night did not lack for theatrics or spirited exchanges.
Perhaps it was no wonder. With the 10 top Republican candidates, as judged by their performance in recent polling, gathering for the first time at Fox News’ prime-time event, there were marked differences in style, tone and substance among the competitors. Each was vying to deliver a breakout performance that would distinguish him in a historically expansive and boisterous field, made all the more unpredictable by the man who occupied the center podium: business mogul Donald Trump, whose durable popularity among conservatives has surprised pundits and the other campaigns.
Although Fox News moderators touched on a wide range of topics, a few issues stood out for revealing the most about these 10 men competing for their party’s nomination and the presidency.
Trump’s popularity among conservatives can at least partially be attributed to his outspokenness on immigration. Upon announcing his presidential campaign, Trump referred to undocumented immigrants as largely “criminals” and “rapists.” Fox News moderator Chris Wallace challenged Trump’s assertion that the Mexican government was willfully sending criminals across the border.
Trump at first deflected, saying building a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico was an absolute necessity, adding it should come with “a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally.”
Pressed further for proof that the Mexican government was engaged in a conspiracy to send criminals into the U.S., Trump finally answered, “Border Patrol, people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what's happening. Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them. They don't want to take care of them.”
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, defended his support for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to legal status for a portion of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants — anathema to some of the GOP base.
“I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family,” Bush said, adding that he believed that it was the responsibility of the U.S. government to control the influx.
“There should be a path to earned legal status for those that are here.” Bush continued. “Not amnesty, earned legal status, which means you pay a fine and do many things over an extended period of time.”
Every candidate who had a chance to respond said they were opposed to the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran that President Barack Obama is currently trying to sell to Congress. Few had answers as to what they would do if the deal was scrapped or made an effort to present an alternative.
“You terminate the deal on Day 1, you reinstate the sanctions authorized by Congress, you go to Congress and put in place even more crippling sanctions in place, and then you convince our allies to do the same,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has stumbled in trying to answer previous foreign policy questions.
Perhaps the most personal and heated moment of the debate came when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie clashed over Paul’s crusade to reign in the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
“Use the Fourth Amendment,” Paul said repeatedly over Christie as the governor spoke of the program’s utility. “Get a warrant.”
“Listen, senator, you know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie fired back. “When you're responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure you use the system the way it's supposed to work.”
“I don't trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug,” Paul said, presumably referring to the partnership of the two men reached to deal with the clean-up in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2011. “And if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.”
Although the Fox News moderators noted that viewers and readers submitted tens of thousands of questions about how to create jobs and expand the economy, the candidates spent relatively little time on the issue, which typically ranks high on the list of voter concerns. Most offered largely boilerplate answers about cutting taxes, streamlining regulations and balancing the budget to jump-start growth.
“A 4 percent growth strategy means you fix a convoluted tax code. You get in and you change every aspect of regulations that are job killers,” Bush said of how he would achieve his goal of achieving 4 percent GDP growth and 19 million new jobs. “You get rid of ‘Obamacare’ and replace it with something that doesn't suppress wages and kill jobs.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a relatively new entrant to the fray who has angered some conservatives for expanding Medicaid under the health care law in his state, emphasized the need to make sure any new, GOP-engineered prosperity extended to everyone.
“Economic growth is the key to everything," he said. "But once you have economic growth, it is important that we reach out to people who live in the shadows, the people who don't seem to ever think that they get a fair deal, and that includes people in our minority community, that includes people who feel as though they don't have a chance to move up.”
Right-sizing Trump’s super-sized personality and pointing out his eccentricities seemed to be a prevailing part of the evening, although the group effort had little effect. Early on, the Cleveland audience booed Trump when he said he was unwilling to cross out a run as an independent, a move that would undoubtedly pull away votes from the Republican candidate in the general election.
“I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins,” he said.
Debate moderators said that Trump once favored of a single-payer health care system, supported abortion rights and an assault weapons ban. They pointed out he has used bankruptcy protections to his benefit repeatedly.
“I've evolved on many issues over the years,” Trump said. “And you know who else has? Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee seemed to sum up the sentiment of many establishment Republicans when he said, “It seems like this election has been a whole lot about a person who’s very high in the polls but doesn’t have a clue about how to govern, a person who has been filled with scandals and who could not lead.”
Pausing, Huckabee continued, “And of course, I’m talking about Hillary Clinton.”