CLEVELAND — A combative and unrepentant Donald Trump dominated Thursday’s raucous prime time GOP presidential debate, taking his campaign into uncharted waters by refusing to promise to support the nominee if it is not him.
“I will not make the pledge at this time,” Trump said as he also declined to rule out making an independent bid.
Early in the debate, when asked by Fox News host Megyn Kelly why he called women he didn’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” Trump refused to apologize.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump said, without missing a beat.
“No, it wasn’t,” Kelly replied.
MORE DEBATE COVERAGE Fiorina breaks from the underdog pack Transcript: ‘Underdog’ debate
More audacious was the reply of the billionaire businessman when it came to his donations to Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton and the family Clinton Foundation.
“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. I gave to a foundation.”
Trump is bankrolling his own campaign and doing no significant fundraising.
The 10-man debate took place before a boisterous audience of 4,500 at the Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – with a home court advantage – clashed on immigration and Iran but did not have particular break out moments compared to the brash Trump, a showman and reality show star.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Dr. Ben Carson found few chances to make any gamechanging remarks.
While there was no real winner in the traditional sense on Thursday night, Bush and Kasich, a late entry to the contest, got the most mileage out of the event, appearing more electable than the others.
Bush, not attacking Trump directly, said his language was “divisive” and won’t lead to a Republican in the White House.
Kasich, not defending Trump’s specific comments, noted that he is “hitting a nerve in this country. He is. He’s hitting a nerve. People are frustrated. They’re fed up. They don’t think the government is working for them. And for people who want to just tune him out, they’re making a mistake.”
Bush downplayed a question about the Bush dynasty, being the son and brother of presidents.
Talking about his tenure as governor, he said “They called me Veto Corleone. Because I vetoed 2,500 separate line-items in the budget.”
The fascination with the frontrunner Trump fueled projections of record viewership of the debate, hosted by Fox News, Facebook and the Ohio Republican Party.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina won the first of the two GOP debates of the day, with her six other lowest polling rivals not offering much competition.
What’s at issue is whether Trump can demonstrate to fellow Republicans sorting through a crowded primary field that he is electable if he were to win the nomination.
Based on the debate – Trump will have a way to go to show he can appeal to the wide swath of voters needed to win the November 2016 general election where Hillary Clinton may well be the Democratic nominee.
Pressed on his remarks that Mexicans coming over the border were criminals, Trump called U.S. leaders “stupid.”
More problematic was his reply when pressed about bankruptcy filings from four of his corporations and why people should trust him.
Defiant, Trump said he “used the laws” of the U.S. “to do a great job” for his company, his employees and himself. In any event, Trump said the bankers who lost millions deserved it because “these lenders are not babies. They are killers.”
Republican presidential candidates from left, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)