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First Republican Debate Was Wide-Ranging, But All Orbited Around Trump


Donald Trump spent last night's presidential debate exactly where any candidate would want to be, center stage. Nine other Republican candidates fanned out to his left and right for the first GOP contest. No doubt some people in the television audience were thinking along the lines of a recent article in the satirical publication The Onion, headlined, "Admit It: You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don't You?" It did not take long for the billionaire reality TV star to demonstrate that he was not going to follow convention. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Right off the bat, Bret Baier, one of three Fox News anchors asking the questions at the debate, got to the topic of party loyalty. The question was clearly aimed at Donald Trump, who's hinted that he might bolt the GOP fold and run an Independent campaign for the White House.


BRET BAIER: Is there anyone on stage - and can I see hand? - who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run in Independent campaign against that person? Again, we're looking for you to raise your hand now.


BAIER: Raise your hand now if you won't make that pledge tonight.


BAIER: Mr. Trump.

GONYEA: Trump and only Trump raised his hand. There were some boos in the audience before Senator Rand Paul shouted out.


RAND PAUL: Hey, look. Look, he's already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn't run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an Independent.


PAUL: But I'd say that he's already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians.

TRUMP: Well, I've given him plenty of money.

GONYEA: Trump calmly explained that he planned on being the GOP nominee. But if not...


TRUMP: I will not make the pledge at this time.


GONYEA: And so began a very lively two-hour debate, with Trump the center of attention much of the time but where the candidates addressed issues from immigration to same-sex marriage to dealing with ISIS and terrorism to education. Jeb Bush was again forced to answer the question about following in the footsteps of two presidents in his family, his father and his brother, and about dynasties in American politics.


JEB BUSH: I'm going to have to earn this. Maybe the barrier - the bar is even higher for me. That's fine.

GONYEA: Each faced questions about their electability, including Marco Rubio of Florida, in his first term in the U.S. Senate and the youngest candidate in the field.


MARCO RUBIO: I would add to that that this election cannot be a resume competition. It's important to be qualified. But if this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton's going to be the next president because she's been in office and in government longer than anybody else running here tonight.

GONYEA: And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked about charges that he has changed some key positions since running for president, including on immigration and his calls as recently as two years ago for a path to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally. Now he opposes that.


SCOTT WALKER: I talked to border state governors and other elected officials. I looked at how this president, particularly through last November, messed up the immigration system in this country. And most importantly, I listened to the people of America.

GONYEA: But the focus kept returning to Trump. Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly asked him about his descriptions of women over the years.


MEGYN KELLY: You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.

GONYEA: Trump was unapologetic, saying the big problem is that this country is too politically correct.


TRUMP: And frankly, what I say - and oftentimes, it's fun. It's kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that.

GONYEA: Jeb Bush was asked about reports he'd called Trump a clown and a buffoon. He denied it.


BUSH: No, it's not true. But I have said that Mr. Trump's language is divisive.

GONYEA: Bush added...


BUSH: We're going to win when we unite people with a hopeful optimistic message.

GONYEA: Trump was pleased with that but seemed to acknowledge that his tone can be a problem. And there were heated exchanges that did not involve Trump. Senator Paul attacked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for supporting broad surveillance powers and collection of cell phone data by the NSA. Here's Christie.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: I will make no apologies ever for protecting the lives and the safety of the American people.

GONYEA: Now here's Senator Paul.


KELLY: Go ahead, Sir.


PAUL: I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans.

GONYEA: To which Christie replied...


CHRISTIE: You know, that's a completely ridiculous answer. I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from other people. How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

GONYEA: Finally, Donald Trump got one more moment as the apparent target in this closing statement from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.


MIKE HUCKABEE: It seems like this election has been a whole lot about a person who's very high in the polls but doesn't have a clue about how to govern, a person who has been filled with scandals and who could not lead. And, of course, I'm talking about Hillary Clinton.

GONYEA: Trump greeted that with a loud thank you. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.