Billionaire real estate businessman and television personality Donald Trump was center stage Thursday night as 10 leading Republican presidential candidates looked for a breakout moment at their first debate on the road to the November 2016 election.
The real estate mogul, along with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and seven others, squared off in Cleveland, Ohio, for the debate that gave Americans their first look at the major Republican candidates, six months before the first nominating contest in Iowa.
The outspoken candidate met expectations at the start of the debate. Asked if he would pledge to rule out a run as an independent if he does not win the nomination, Trump declined. "I will not make the pledge at this time,'' he said.
He also refused to apologize for making what some saw as insulting comments about women, saying, "The big problem this country has is being politically correct.''
Joining Trump on stage in the important election swing state was a field of seasoned governors, rookie senators and a never-been-elected outsider. An enthusiastic crowd of 4,500 filled the arena, cheering on the candidates, including former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas; current Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio; U.S. Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas; and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Before the main event, seven Republican presidential candidates who rank lower in the polls took part in a separate debate and quickly challenged Trump's conservative credentials.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry contrasted Trump’s tough talk on immigration control with his own record, noting that he deployed the National Guard to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took a shot at Trump as well, saying his shifting positions on key issues make him untrustworthy.
Perry and Fiorina shared the stage with former Governors George Pataki and Jim Gilmore, current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was the other favorite target in the pre-debate forum, especially when the moderators asked foreign policy questions. Graham urged Americans not to support the former first lady and secretary of state.
"To all the Americans who want a better life, don't vote for Hillary Clinton. You're not going to get it," Graham said.
The 10 competing in the prime time debate airing on Fox News Channel were chosen based on an aggregate of polls the network used to determine the field. Similar models are expected to be used for future GOP debates.
Trump headed into the late-evening debate with a solid lead in the national polls. A Bloomberg survey released Tuesday had Trump at 21 percent, handing him a double-digit lead over the rest of the field.
Democrats made some news of their own on Thursday. In Washington, the Democratic National Committee announced plans for its presidential debates, the first of which is to be October 13 in Nevada. It said four debates are planned for early presidential primary states in advance of the Iowa caucuses, which begin February 1.