Donald Trump’s latest reality show roared into Ohio on Thursday night.
Within a few minutes of his first debate as a Republican presidential candidate, Trump ridiculed comedian Rosie O’Donnell and griped about his treatment by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. But it was his refusal to rule out a third-party presidential run — a move that could deny Republicans the White House — that drew gasps in the audience and sparked anger from his opponents.
“I mean, this is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK?” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
The ever-unapologetic Trump then chastised the country for being too “politically correct.”
“I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” Trump quipped.
It was an explosive start to the first GOP debate in a campaign season already upended by Trump, the unfiltered and brash real estate magnate. It was immediately apparent that classic Trump showed up to the debate — someone who pushes the boundaries and has no qualms about leveling personal attacks in public.
Kelly challenged Trump on some of his past comments towards women.
“You call women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she said.
Trump quickly responded: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”
The issue of immigration loomed large at the debate — something that Trump claimed full credit for.
“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be even talking about illegal immigration, Chris,” Trump said to Fox News host Chris Wallace. “This was not a subject that was on anyone’s mind until I brought it up at my announcement.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been trailing in second place behind Trump in the polls, addressed the issue by stressing that he did not support “amnesty.” His stance on what to do about the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country has dogged the ex-governor.
“We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security,” Bush said. “We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic that people are dying because of the fact that local governments are not following the law.”
Trump is smack in the center of the debate line-up tonight. The lower tier of presidential contenders had their brief moment in the sun earlier Thursday at a debate where Carly Fiorina delivered a memorable and polished performance.
The prime-time debate is a particularly high-stakes moment for Trump, whose early dominance has both stunned — and aggravated — members of his own party. National Republican leaders have at times seemed unsure of what to make of the fact that such a no-filter politician with no obligations to the party could unexpectedly become the GOP’s standard-bearer. The evening is also an opportunity for Bush to move past a shaky few days that included controversial comments about women’s health care along with an uncomfortable performance at a New Hampshire candidate forum.
The open contempt for Trump was on full display at the earlier debate. It took only 11 minutes before candidates came out swinging against Trump.
Lesser-known contenders including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Fiorina slammed Trump, blasting the billionaire businessman’s conservative credentials and friendly relationship with Hillary and Bill Clinton.
“I talked about Donald Trump from the standpoint of being an individual who is using his celebrity rather than his conservatism,” said Perry, who has positioned himself as one of Trump’s biggest antagonists on the trail. “How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?”
A Bloomberg survey released Tuesday had Trump at 21%, handing him a double-digit lead over both Bush, who was at 10%, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was at 8%.
Trump, Bush and Walker are on the prime-time debate stage with Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
Trump has tried to quell expectations, downplaying any preparations ahead of this week. But it’s clear that Thursday night has the potential to be a turning point both for his candidacy and by extension a party that is desperate to win back the White House.
Besides Trump, Hillary Clinton is likely to be another favorite punching bag at the prime-time debate.
In the earlier event, the candidates savored opportunities to go after the Democratic frontrunner. Describing Clinton as “secretive” and “not trustworthy,” they slammed her on issues ranging from foreign policy to her use of a private email server at the State Department.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also took a more personal shot at Clinton, criticizing her now-infamous comments that she and Bill were “dead broke” after leaving the White House.
“I know the difference between flat broke — apparently she doesn’t,” he said. “Hillary, I’ll show you flat broke. That’s not it.”
Fiorina emerged as the star of the earlier debate. She used the venue to highlight some of her best assets: that she is a seasoned public speaker with smooth delivery; she is the only woman in the crowded GOP field; and that she is an outsider candidate with the potential to harness the widespread frustration with Washington. That is a theme the top tier candidates will likely hit hard during prime time.
When candidates aren’t attacking Trump or Clinton, they’ll likely target President Barack Obama — especially on immigration. The topic has taken center stage in the 2016 cycle, in large part because of Trump’s impassioned — and at times inflammatory — remarks about illegal immigration and strengthening the border.
Presidential hopefuls went after Obama on immigration in the earlier debate.
“I know we have a president who wants to do whatever he wants to do and take his pen and his phone and just tell everybody what he thinks is best,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said. “But the reason America is a great country, the reason is because our compassion is in our laws and when we live by those laws.”
Perry said the U.S. border was “still porous,” and hit Obama for failing to secure it.