CLEVELAND — Donald Trump declined the chance to rule out a third-party presidential bid during a lively debate Thursday dominated by talk about the billionaire-turned-political phenomenon.
“I will not make the pledge at this time,” Trump said when a moderator asked all 10 Republican candidates whether they would forgo an independent bid should they lose the GOP nomination. The only one to refuse the request, Trump said he has to “respect the person” who prevails, though he added that he expects to claim the GOP nomination himself.
Trump’s rise to front-runner status shadowed a crowded 10-man debate that also touched on contentious issues like immigration, abortion, health care, Social Security and Medicare spending, as well as government surveillance in counterterrorism investigations.
Trump and Jeb Bush, his closest competitor in many polls, also clashed over style and background.
While denying a published report that he has called Trump a “clown” and “buffoon,” Bush did declare that “I have said that Mr. Trump’s language is divisive,” especially comments about Mexican migrants.
For his part, Trump described the presidency of George W. Bush — Jeb’s brother — as a “catastrophe” that led to the election of President Obama. While he can be abrasive, Trump said the nation faces major problems and “we don’t have time for tone — we have to go out and get the job done.”
Meanwhile, in one of the debate’s sharpest exchanges, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fought over government surveillance programs. When Christie said Paul’s opposition to certain programs would undercut terrorism investigation, Paul told him “use the fourth amendment!” Christie said Paul and like-minded senators are “just blowing hot air about this.”
When Paul said he wants to “collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans,” Christie called it “a completely ridiculous answer … How are you supposed to know?”
Trump also clashed with Paul, who blasted the businessman for refusing the invitation to refused a third-party bid, saying the New York businessman “buys and sells politicians of all stripes” and has spoken favorably of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Paul and Trump also argued health care policy, and at one point the New Yorker told the Kentucky senator: “I don’t think you heard me; you’re having a hard time tonight.”
In a statement after the debate, Trump said he was proud of his performance: “I am not a debater, but I am a winner.”
Some analysts weren’t as complimentary. David McIntosh, president of the organization Club for Growth, said that “Trump plays both sides of any issue just like the worst of Washington politicians.”
Some of the Republicans on the debate stage seemed reluctant to directly criticize Trump.
John Kasich, who as governor of Ohio enjoyed a home-court advantage in the Cleveland basketball arena, said Trump is “hitting a nerve in this country,” but added that “he’s got his solutions — some of us have other solutions.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., challenged some of Trump’s immigration statements, and said at one point that “the evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico.” Rubio also said he agreed that “people are frustrated.”
Trump, who blasted politicians and reporters throughout the debate, replied that he has given money to many of the Republicans on the stage. The candidate whose criticism of establishment politicians has rocketed him to the top of Republican polls said at one point that “our politicians are stupid” when it comes to dealing with Mexico and immigration.
Defending his harsh comments about Mexican migrants, Trump said at one point that “we need to build a wall” and “we need to keep illegals out.”
The GOP front-runner also argued repeatedly with the three debate moderators from Fox News. When Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked Trump about disparaging comments he has made about women, the billionaire said the country has had a problem with being too “politically correct.” He also told Kelly: “If you don’t like it, I’m sorry.”
In a separate debate earlier in the afternoon, GOP candidates who did not qualify for the prime-time session denounced Trump as a reality television celebrity who has only recently adopted conservative causes.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina said Trump has shifted positions on illegal immigration, health care and abortion in recent years and has been friendly with both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for next year’s Democratic nomination.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” Fiorina said, referring to a Washington Post story on Wednesday which reported of a call between Trump and the former president in May.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry said Trump is “using his celebrity rather than his conservatism,” and noted that he once backed “single payer health care.”
Fox News sponsored the event held at the arena where the Republicans will stage their nominating convention next year. The prime-time debate featured only the top 10 finishers in a collection of polls compiled by Fox.
Bush, the former governor of Florida, found himself on the defensive over immigration and education policies that have been criticized by conservatives. The son and brother of previous presidents, Bush also said he understands the concerns about dynastic politics and the prospects of a third Bush family member in the White House.
“I’m going to have to earn this,” Bush said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also finished high in pre-debate polls, explained why he changed his mind and now opposes a once-proposed path to citizenship for migrants who are in the country illegally.
“I said I actually listened to the American people,” Walker said. “And I think people across America want a leader who’s actually going to listen to them.”
Also taking part in Thursday’s debate were former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
All of the candidates criticized President Obama’s foreign policy and pledged to step up the battle against the Islamic State; they also promised to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
Cruz, an outspoken conservative who accused Republican leaders of lying, disputed the idea that he is too divisive a figure to be president. “I believe the American people are looking for someone to speak the truth,” he said.
The sheer size of the prime-time debate created some awkward moments.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to get to talk again,” Carson said at one point.
Throughout the campaign, some opponents have criticized Trump for his biting comments — accusing too many Mexican migrants of being rapists and criminals — and what they call unrealistic proposals, such as building a wall along the border and have Mexico pay for it. Trump’s approach will hurt the Republicans with Hispanic voters, the fastest growing segment of the electorate, critics have said.
In his closing statement, Huckabee said it’s a shame that so much of the election has been about someone who doesn’t have “a clue” about how to govern, and has been so scandal-ridden — “and, of course, I’m talking about Hillary Clinton.”
“Thank you,” Trump said.