By Garth Kant and Chelsea Schilling
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WASHINGTON – In what was likely the biggest and most unusual presidential primary debate in U.S. history, millions of Americans tuned in Thursday evening to see if double-digit front-runner Donald Trump could sustain his unorthodox and unprecedented campaign of shock and awe with another series of smackdowns and whether he would get return fire.
Viewers got the expected fireworks from the very moment the debate began.
But it wasn't the nine other GOP candidates on stage who had launched a full-blown assault on the billionaire businessman.
It was Fox News.
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At the very beginning, moderator Brett Baier asked Trump if he would pledge not to run as a third-party candidate if he doesn't win the GOP nomination. Trump's refusal to make that pledge elicited boos from the crowd.
"I cannot say," Trump said. "If I'm the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent. ... We want to win, and we will win. But I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee."
"This is what's wrong," charged Sen Rand Paul, R-Ky. "He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. He's already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn't run as a Republican, he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent, but I'd say he's already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians."
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The big question about Trump had been whether he would play it safe after having developed a double-digit lead in the polls or keep shooting from the hip and making the kind of bold statements that got him that commanding lead in the first place.
For the other nine on the stage, the question was whether any of them could break out of the pack by generating a memorable moment that would leave a lasting and positive impression with voters, despite the long shadow cast by the huge personality and popularity of Trump.
The debate was broadcast on Fox News, which set the rules and limited the participants to the top 10 in an average of five national polls as of Tuesday.
Making the cut were Trump (23.4 percent), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (12.0 percent), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (10.2 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (6.6 percent), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (5.8 percent), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (5.4 percent), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (5.4 percent), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (4.8 percent), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (3.4 percent) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (3.2 percent).
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Trump accused of 'war on women'
Fox News' Megyn Kelly took dead aim at Trump all evening, at one point accusing him of waging a war on women: "You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals. Your Twitter account ..."
Trump interrupted: "Only Rosie O'Donnell."
The entire crowd erupted in laughter.
Kelly responded, "Your Twitter account, for the record, it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell."
He responded, "Yes, I'm sure it was."
Kelly continued, "Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on 'Celebrity Apprentice' 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, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?"
Trump blasted back: "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time, either. This country is in big trouble. We don't win anymore. We lose to China, we lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody. And, frankly, what I say often times, it's fun, it's kidding, we have a good time, what I say is what I say, and, honestly Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry, I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that.
"But, you know what? We need strength. We need energy, we need quickness and we need brain in this country to turn it around."
'Our politicians are stupid'
Then Chris Wallace got in on the action: "You say the Mexican government is sending criminals, rapists, drug-dealers across the border. Gov Bush has called those remarks, quote, extraordinarily ugly. I'd like you, you're right next to him, tell us, talk to him directly and say how you respond to that."
(The actual quote that had propelled Trump to the top while drawing loud condemnation from both Democrats and many of his fellow Republican contenders: "When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”)
Trump initially just shrugged and grimaced in response to this particular Fox interrogation, as Wallace pressed on.
"And you have repeatedly said that you have evidence that the Mexican government is doing this, evidence that you have refused or declined to share," Wallace continued. "Why not use this first Republican presidential debate to share your proof with the American people?"
Trump slapped back: "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris. You wouldn't even be talking about it."
The massive crowd erupted in cheers.
Watch the exchange:
"This was not a subject that was on anybody's mind until I brought it up at my announcement ..." he said. "Except the reporters, because they're a very dishonest lot, generally speaking in the world of politics, they didn't cover my statement the way I said it. The fact is, since then, [there have been] many killings, murders, crime, drugs pouring across the border, our money going out and the drugs coming in. And I said we need to build a wall. And it has to built quickly.
"And I don't mind having a big, beautiful door in that wall, so that people can come into this country legally. But we need, Jeb (points to his left at Bush), to build a wall. We need to keep illegals out."
Wallace shot back: "Mr. Trump, I'll give you 30 seconds to answer my question, which was: What evidence do you have, specific evidence, that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border?"
Trump replied, "Border Patrol. I was at the border last week. 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."
Then Wallace turned to Sen. Cruz and asked, "Sen. Cruz, some 1,400 people submitted questions on this very hot topic of illegal immigration on Facebook, and a number of them were about the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, allegedly shot down by an illegal. Will you support 'Kate Steinle's Law,' and will you defund sanctuary cities for violating federal law, which would impose a mandatory five-year prison term for an illegal who is deported then returns to this country?"
Cruz responded, "Absolutely, yes. And not only will I support it, I have authored Kate's Law in the United States Senate and filed that legislation. I tried to get the Senate to vote to pass Kate's Law on the floor of the Senate just one week ago, and the leader of our own party blocked a vote on Kate's Law.
"You know, there was reference made to our leaders being stupid. It's not a question of stupidity. It's that they don't want to enforce the immigration laws."
Cruz accused "far too many in the Washington cartel" of supporting amnesty.
"President Obama has talked about fundamentally transforming this country," he said. "There are seven billion people across the face of the globe, many of whom want to come to this country. If they come legally, great. But if they come illegally, and they get amnesty, that is how we fundamentally change this country. And it really is striking. A majority of candidates on this stage have supported amnesty. I have never supported amnesty and I led the fight against Chuck Schumer's Gang of Eight amnesty legislation in the Senate."
What did you get from Hillary Clinton?
Trump was targeted with other questions about his previous support of single-payer health care and donations to Democrats such as Hillary Clinton. Few of the other GOP candidates were on the receiving end of such pointed attacks by Fox News debate moderators.
Baier blasted Trump: "You've supported a host of liberal policies. You've also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations, saying you did that to get business-related favors. And you said recently, quote, 'When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.'"
Trump chimed in: "You better believe it!"
Baier asked, "So what specifically did they do?"
Trump replied, "I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people – before this – before two months ago. I was a businessman. I'd give to everybody. When they'd call, I'd give.
"And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That's a broken system."
Baier pushed again: "So what'd you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?"
"With Hillary Clinton, I said, 'Be at my wedding,' and she came to my wedding," Trump said.
"And you know why? She had no choice because I gave. I gave to a foundation that, frankly, that foundation is supposed to do good. I didn't know her money would be used on private jets going all over the world."
Watch the exchange:
When did you become a Republican?
Citing his record of political support for various issues through the years, Kelly piled on Trump: "In 1999 you said you were, quote, 'very pro-choice,' even supporting partial-birth abortion. You favored an assault weapons ban as well. In 2004, you said in most cases you had identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on this stage things like clowns and puppets.
"When did you actually become a Republican?"
An audible smattering of the crowd hooted and booed.
But Trump smiled and shrugged.
"I don't think they like me very much. I'll tell you why. I've evolved on many issues over the years," Trump said. "And you know who else has? Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues. I am pro-life. If you look at the question, I was in business. They asked me a question as pro-life or choice, and I said, if you let it run, that I hate the concept of abortion. I hate the concept of abortion. And since then, I have very much evolved."
He continued, "What happened is, friends of mine, years ago, were going to have a child and it was going to be aborted. It wasn't aborted, and that child today is a total superstar. A great, great child. And I saw that, and I saw other instances, and I am very very proud to say that I am pro-life.
"As far as being a Republican is concerned, I come from a place, New York City, which is virtually, I mean, it's almost exclusively Democrat. I have really started to see some of the negatives. As an example, I have a lot of liking for this man (points at Bush), but the last number of months of his brother's administration were a catastrophe. And, unfortunately, those few months gave us President Obama, and you can't be happy about that."
Bush on Trump: Clown, buffoon and a--hole
Kelly turned to Bush, referencing a report that he called Trump a "clown," "buffoon" and "a--hole" in a conversation with a donor.
Bush interrupted, claiming none of those claims were true.
"No, it's not true, but I have said that Mr. Trump's language is divisive. I want to win. I want one of these people here, or the ones at five o'clock, to be the next president of the United States. We're not going to win by doing what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do each and every day – dividing the country, creating a grievance kind of environment. We're going to win when we unite people with a hopeful, optimistic message."
Trump weighed in: "Well, first of all, Jeb, I am very happy that you denied that, and I appreciate that very much. I mean, he's a true gentleman; he really is.
"One thing he did say about me, however, was my tone, and I also understand that. But when you have people that are cutting Christians heads off, when you have a world, at the border and in so many places that its medieval times ... We don't have time for tone. We have to go out and get the job done."
Then came the closing statements, some of which were received very well by the crowd.
Cruz concluded, "If I am elected president, let me tell you about my first day in office. The first thing I intend to do is to rescind every illegal and unconstitutional executive action taken by Barack Obama."
The crowd cheered wildly.
"The next thing I intend to do is instruct the Department of Justice to open an investigation into these videos and to prosecute Planned Parenthood for any criminal violations."
'Doesn't have a clue about how to govern'
Then Huckabee brought down the house with his closing statement – which initially sounded like vicious fighting words targeting Trump:
"It seems like this election has been a whole about a person who is 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."
The crowd said, "Oooooh," thinking things were about to get uglier.
Watch the clip:
Then Huckabee deadpanned, "And, of course, I'm talking about Hillary Clinton."
The crowd broke into laughter, and Huckabee finished: "I think America is in trouble, but it's not beyond repair. But it's going to take leadership who sees the greatness of this country and who believes that once again, we can be one nation under God."
Reactions to Trump's performance
Following the debate, Fox News' Brit Hume evaluated Trump's performance: "I think he did fine."
Hume said he didn't believe Trump expanded his base of support.
"He got a little testy with [Kelly], and that was an ugly moment and ungentlemanly. And I think a lot of people won't like that," he said. "But he's fine. He didn't move the ball one way or the other."
But he added, "People like the fact that he doesn't take any guff, and he's tough. There's a segment of the Republican electorate that wants these big shots to be told off. Media big shots, political big shots. They like that sort of stuff. But there's a point at which it looks peevish and petty. And that's a risk that I think he runs, and he gets very close to the line, if he doesn't cross it."
Pollster Frank Luntz said most members of his focus group loved Trump before the debate, but didn't like him at all, afterwards.
He asked his group: When you walked in here tonight, how many of you had a positive opinion of Donald Trump overall? Raise your hands."
Thirteen of 23 people raised their hands.
Then he asked: How many of you have a positive opinion of him now?
Only four people raised their hands.
One member of the group commented: "I liked him because he wasn't a politician, but right now, he skirted around questions better than a lifelong politician. I was really expecting him to do a lot better but he just crashed and burned, He was mean, angry. He had no specifics, he was bombastic. He just let me down. I just expected him to rise to the occasion and look presidential. He didn't.
Regarding Trump's refusal to promise not to run as an independent, the member said, "He's splitting the party, basically. He's taking the focus away from the candidate who's going to be leading. And if he runs as an independent, he's basically going to be handing the election to Hillary."
Political commentator and columnist Charles Krauthammer continued the Fox News assault on the front-runner, saying: "I think the real story is the collapse of Trump in this debate. The fact is, he was out of place."
He continued, "And when you think about it, when he's free form, when he's uninterrupted, when he can do the flight of ideas, when he can go on, on his own, and ramble, he's entertaining. He's sharp. He's amusing. But here, when he was controlled and in a tight setting, he was lost for most of the debate.
"And I think it showed that he was in a group of professional politicians whom he mocks and yet, they, as a group and individually, were able to handle it and be sharp and persuasive. Most of the time, they left him out in the cold."
Krauthammer said he believed the winners of the debate were Cruz, Rubio, Huckabee and Christie, "because of the way, I think, he bested Rand Paul in the debate about eavesdropping and national security."
When Kelly asked what specifically hurt Trump, the analyst replied: "He was testy. He was thin-skinned. He was honest, I grant him that, and when you asked the first question about whether he would support or not the candidate, that really hurt him in the audience and perhaps in the more general Republican audience.
"But he didn't flinch and he was straight-forward about that. But I think, when it came to substance, there was no substance."