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What we learned from the GOP debate

Reporter’s notebook: Fox News was the big winner on a challenging night for the candidates and their party

WASHINGTON — Fox News’ prime-time GOP presidential debate on Thursday was a huge success for the broadcaster, with initial ratings showing that an astonishing 16 percent of U.S. households tuned in. But the event may have been less beneficial to the Republican Party, which hoped, after its chaotic 2012 primaries, to select a presidential nominee in a more orderly, less divisive and less damaging fashion.

Three key takeaways from the debate:

It’s Donald Trump’s world; the other candidates simply live in it.

Political observers and debate watchers offered widely differing assessments of which contenders prospered in the 10-candidate pileup. (Seven candidates did not make the prime-time cut and were relegated to an earlier forum.) Perhaps that’s because, despite the best efforts of debate moderators and his rivals, GOP front-runner and property mogul Donald Trump could not be deflated. He continued to eschew the carefully constructed messaging so common among politicians, presenting himself throughout the two-hour event as unashamedly provocative, self-aggrandizing and unflappable, drawing valuable airtime from lesser-known but more accomplished competitors. Those who suffered most were lower-tier candidates such as neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. One exception, though, was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a late entry into the race whose answers on everything from his decision to expand Medicaid in his home state to his views on same-sex marriage would be more likely to appeal to voters outside the committed GOP base.

That’s going to hurt in November.

Previous GOP debates produced moments that have come back to haunt the party in the general election, such as in 2011 when audience members cheered when candidate Ron Paul was asked if society should allow a severely ill person without health insurance to die and when eventual 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney suggested “self-deportation” as a key component of his immigration policy.

Potentially haunting moments from last night’s event included Trump doubling down on his assertion that the Mexican government was intentionally sending criminals to the United States and hard-line stances on abortion from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. All went on the record saying they believed abortion should be illegal, even in cases of rape, incest and risk to the mother’s life.   

“I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected,” Walker said when asked if his opposition to abortion even when the life of the mother was in danger was too far out of the mainstream. “There are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That’s been consistently proven.”

Similarly, when Rubio was challenged on supporting bills that included exceptions for rape and incest, he argued, “I have never said that. And I have never advocated that. What I have advocated is that we pass law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection.”

Rubio doubled down on that position on Friday morning, telling CNN, “I personally believe you do not correct one tragedy with a second tragedy.”  

According to the most recent Gallup polling, only 19 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. About 75 percent believe the procedure should be legal in the case of rape or incest.

Political donations yield business favors.

When moderator Brett Baier asked Trump about his political contributions to Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, he had no problem admitting his intentions.  

“Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give,” Trump said. “And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”

With that, Trump seemed to nonchalantly confirm the culture of pay to play between politicians and their wealthiest donors that many Americans suspect is the case. Despite Trump’s confirming that wealthy donors fund politicians in order to call in favors, the question of campaign finance reform was never addressed.

Baier pressed, What did Trump get from Pelosi and Clinton? 

Trump said, “With Hillary Clinton, I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn’t have a choice, because I gave.”

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