Ten Republican presidential candidates engaged in a sprawling two-hour debate Thursday evening, a rollicking exchange of quips, barbs and issue statements designed to start thinning the long list of the party’s potential nominees.
The debate gave millions of Americans their first long look at the crowded field. They heard answers that were crisp and generally on point, even as the debate lurched from issue to issue.
But — unsurprisingly, perhaps — the debate appeared to do little to disrupt the current dynamics of the campaign, six months before Iowans cast the first votes of the 2016 presidential race.
It was still fascinating. The candidates jostled for position, repeated stump speech applause lines and tried to illuminate small differences on policies ranging from Social Security and tax reform to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Some fireworks came early. Front-runner Donald Trump refused to pledge support for the eventual GOP nominee and indicated he might consider an independent candidacy if he fails to win the party’s nomination.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — like many on the stage, stuck in the single digits in most polls — immediately took Trump to task.
“He buys and sells politicians of all stripes,” Paul said. “He’s already hedging his bets on the Clintons.”
Trump didn’t directly respond.
The testiest exchange came between Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who exchanged bitter remarks over national security and warrantless wiretaps.
“I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights,” Paul said, explaining his opposition to such searches.
Christie called that ridiculous. “When you’re sitting in a subcommittee blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” he said.
Paul: “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. … If you want to give him a big hug, you go right ahead.”
The crowd frequently erupted in applause, interrupting front-runners like Jeb Bush and longer shots like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Those candidates shared a goal with other candidates in the middle tier of GOP hopefuls — Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Huckabee among them. They wanted to use their answers to separate themselves from their peers, a difficult task given the scarcity of actual airtime during the exchange.
But the raised voices and finger-pointing did not appear to provide clear separation of the single-tier candidates. Paul seemed the most aggressive, Kasich the most moderate.
Trump did not dominate the debate, as some thought he might. At times he seemed the most defensive of the candidates, forced to explain his associations with Hillary Clinton and his donations to Democratic candidates. He told the audience he had “evolved” from positions associated with most Democrats, including his since-renounced support for access to abortions.
He was asked about the bankruptcies of several of his companies.
“I’ve taken advantage of the laws of this country, like other people,” he said.
Those issues and others may eventually hurt Trump’s campaign. In response, perhaps, he took at least two shots at journalists — always a popular tactic with a Republican audience. He also defended his occasionally blunt language.
One of the day’s winners may not have been on the evening stage.
Carly Fiorina, the former business executive relegated to the so-called junior varsity debate in the afternoon, electrified some Republicans by launching several fierce attacks on likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Her performance probably damaged the hopes of candidates such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Texas governor Rick Perry, who did little in their performances to stand out from their colleagues.
Perry complimented Fiorina, and Fox News used a clip of her performance in the main debate. Her poll numbers, not high enough to qualify for the evening debate, are likely to grow.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush stumbled slightly when asked about President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. He also heard boos when a reporter asked about Common Core, an attempt to set education standards across the country. Bush was an early supporter of Common Core.
But Bush did not appear to make a mistake that would cause him immediate problems or clearly cost him substantial support. He called Trump’s language divisive, but he did not directly engage the billionaire.
Kasich sought the most moderate ground, defending his choice to expand Medicaid coverage in his state. He said he accepted the Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin — a front-runner — was asked to defend mediocre job growth in his state. The governor, a favorite of Republicans who oppose organized labor, defended his record but did not otherwise stand out.
The format of the debate, which allowed short answers to questions asked by three Fox News reporters, made candidate-to-candidate exchanges difficult. Instead, the debate jumped from topic to topic — abortion, foreign affairs, health care and immigration — and from candidate to candidate, making it harder for any one of them to stand out.
All of the candidates took repeated shots at President Barack Obama.
“We have people in Washington who don’t know what they’re doing,” Trump said, and an audience member screamed.
The debate closed with each candidate discussing his faith.
The encounter was the first of nine planned encounters involving the Republican field. As the calendar moves from summer to fall, some lower-tier candidates are expected to drop out — a lack of money the likely reason.
Thursday’s debate performances may play a role in those decisions but will not be the main explanation for changes in the GOP field.
As of now there are still 17 candidates in the race.