Trump in Republican debate: Frontrunner's bandwagon rolls on - with Jeb Bush the big loser

The wild card in the race for the Republican ticket is still there after blustering his way through Thursday night's debate. But Marco Rubio was the big winner – and Jeb Bush the big loser

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The Independent US

Republicans awoke on Friday with a ghastly hangover brought on by far too many servings of Donald Trump at the party’s first primary debate in Cleveland on Thursday night, a poison the party seems unable to resist despite the menu including the less lethal options of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich.

On the upside, the carnival that the debate, moderated by three anchors from Fox News, seemed occasionally to resemble certainly grabbed the nation’s attention. Preliminary numbers from the Nielsen organisation suggested that 16 per cent of all US households tuned in, easily setting a record. Four years ago, the highest-rated encounter garnered just 5 per cent of homes.

It was a split-screen affair. Viewers, as well as the 5,000-strong and often raucous audience inside the Quicken Loans Arena, could on the one hand indulge their fascination with Mr Trump and his quest to be the least-presidential presidential candidate of all time but also gauge who among the other nine rivals on the stage might appeal if/when his improbable bubble finally bursts.

On both counts, the night didn’t disappoint. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, arguably stood out, looking past the Trump tempest and successfully parlaying his youth, at 44 years old. Mr Kasich, the current Ohio Governor and a late entrant to the race, also had a strong night, offering compassion for gay Americans even while saying he opposed gay marriage.

 

What didn’t happen was command of the stage being taken by Mr Bush, the former Governor of Florida. Aside from looking uneasy when pushed to answer questions about America’s readiness for more of the Bush dynasty and his brother’s invasion of Iraq, he made no unforced errors. But given the expectations set when he entered the race, that was surely less than he and his supporters wanted of the night. 

A defiant Mr Trump, meanwhile, dispelled any notion that he might come to Cleveland sporting a more sober tone or even hinting he had given some serious thought to issues such as immigration, foreign policy, abortion rights and the challenge of beating the prospective Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton. Instead, he was caustic, bombastic, sarcastic and often incoherent. On Obamacare he at once praised Scotland for its “single-payer system” (presumably the NHS), but then said while it might have worked in the US “in a different age,” he’d now prefer a private health system.

The Fox moderators worked harder to trip up Mr Trump than any of the other candidates – possibly excepting Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – challenging his shifting positions on healthcare and also abortion, questioning his business record and his four well-documented bankruptcies, as well as his past donations to Ms Clinton. Mostly he responded with bluster and outright disdain.

Mr Trump had many dangerous moments, not least when he was challenged by the moderator Megyn Kelly on his alleged record of calling women “fat pigs”, “dogs”, “slobs” and “disgusting animals”. He deflected her, saying he didn’t “have time for political correctness”, the very premise of his run.

Mr Trump also courted the anger of the party by refusing to pledge to support its eventual nominee if it’s not him nor to promise that in that event he wouldn’t relaunch himself as an independent candidate, a scenario that would probably hand the White House to the Democrats.

Whether his debate performance will have hurt his wide polling lead or helped it grow will become evident as polling numbers emerge in the coming days. He asserted he had no memory of ever having made the remarks about women. “I don’t recognise those words whatsoever,” he told ABC.

While on the stage he was all showman, in the aftermath of the debate Mr Trump seemed like a candidate on the defensive. After attracting a near stampede of cameras and reporters on entering the press area 40 minutes after the debate was over, Mr Trump declared himself the winner but then started to whine about his treatment by Fox.

“The questions to me I think were much tougher than they were to anybody else,” he averred, according to reporters who got close enough to hear. “Story of my life, I guess.”

The Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has been polling second roughly even with Mr Bush, survived the audition intact, managing one joke criticising foreign adversaries accused of cyber attacks on the US and Ms Clinton for her email secretiveness all at once. “Probably the Russian and Chinese government know more about Hillary Clinton’s email server than do the members of the United States Congress.”

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Without all the Trumperama, the most memorable moment would have been a near shouting match between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has seen his once front-runner status fade, and Mr Rand, a libertarian, over the latter’s call for less warrantless surveillance of American phone data.

“I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans,” Mr Paul declared. Mr Christie was dismissive, calling his statement “ridiculous”. “How are you supposed to know” who is a terrorist and who is not, he asked.

It was another gripping moment. It is not clear if either Mr Christie or Mr Paul will have drawn much benefit from the spat. Or if Mr Trump did from the entire show.

GOP Debate - the winners

Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida

Rubio showed poise and discipline and an ability to look past the Trump show. 

John Kasich, Governor of Ohio

Made most of home-field advantage and showed himself a grown-up.

Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin

Showed he can handle tough questions; slammed Clinton and foreign foes in one joke. 

Ben Carson, ex neurosurgeon

Won’t be the nominee, but stood out for his low-octane tone and remarks on race.

Fox News

Aggressive questioning from all three moderators. They delivered a riveting debate.

and the losers

Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida

Got in a slight tangle, again, on his brother’s Iraq invasion.

Ted Cruz, Senator from Texas

Strong words on Isis, but the darling of the far right failed to stand out otherwise.

Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky

Won squabble with Christie about surveillance. But came over as a peevish misfit.

Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey

Spent a lot of energy emphasising 9/11 tragedy, but needs new oomph.

Mike Huckabee, Former Governor of Arkansas

Hit evangelical notes, but seemed tired, a yesterday man.

and the frontrunner

Donald Trump, property magnate

Could pay for refusing to support the eventual nominee if it isn’t him and for insulting Rosie O’Donnell. But Trump has benefited in the past for saying controversial things.

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