CLEVELAND — A combative Donald Trump, the U.S. billionaire businessman-turned-presidential candidate, jolted the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign with his with his brash, confrontational comments, but the event also served as a reminder that the race still remains leaderless and unsettled.
Asked in the debate's opening minutes whether he could rule out running for America's top post as an independent candidate, Trump declared Thursday night, "I will not make the pledge at this time." He also refused to apologize for making crude comments about women, defended his changing policy positions and tangled with the debate moderators.
Should Trump opt for a third-party run, he likely would split the Republican vote, making it more likely that Democrat frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton would win, giving her party a third straight term in in the White House.
During the two-hour session Trump put to rest speculation that he would tone down his divisive rhetoric that many expected would be ruinous to his campaign, but instead helped him rise quickly to the top of the polls. He brushed aside questions about his public denigration of women, explaining that he has no time for political correctness, and said he had done nothing but used American laws when four of his companies took bankruptcy.
Trump was the only one of 10 candidates to raise his hand when the Fox News hosts asked who would not pledge to support the eventual party nominee.
Trump's refusal enraged Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who said Trump was "already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians."
Through the remainder of the debate, the candidates made little news, choosing instead to use their time to repeat already well-known positions. Only 10 of 17 Republican candidates were invited to participate in the main event, with the remaining seven relegated to a pre-debate forum.
Fifteen months from the election, Trump remains a longshot candidate to replace President Barack Obama. The event was a key test for Trump, whose unpredictable style and unformed policy positions mean he doesn't fit neatly into any single wing of the Republican Party.
That appears to be a draw to some Republicans frustrated with Washington and career politicians, but others fear his eccentricities and outlandish comments — whether about Mexican immigrants being "criminals" and "rapists" or his questioning of the war record of Sen. John McCain — will taint the American public's view of the party.
Standing to Trump's left on the debate stage Thursday night was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a favourite of the wealthy donors and business leaders that populate the establishment wing of the Republican Party. But Bush, the son and brother of two former U.S. presidents, has struggled to separate himself from the rest of the field and he faces questions about whether his nomination would mark a return to the past.
Immigration and counterterrorism dominated the early stages of the debate, two issues that highlight the deep divisions within the Republican Party.
Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, defended his call for a path to legal status for some of the people living in the U.S. illegally. It's an unpopular position among some Republican voters who equate legal status with amnesty.
"The great majority of people coming here have no other option," Bush said.
Trump in particular has pushed the issue of immigration throughout the summer. He said Thursday border patrol agents agreed with his comments about Mexicans, and he took credit for immigration being an issue in the 2016 campaign.
Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie engaged in a heated exchange over anti-terrorism measures and laws giving government access to Americans' phone records.
Paul, a staunch opponent of the surveillance programs, said he wanted to collect more records from terrorists, not law-abiding Americans.
To Trump's right was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose victories over labour unions in his home state created his national profile. He broke no new ground in the debate.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the youngest candidate in the field at age 44, was trying to carve out a niche as a foreign policy expert, but has struggled to break through this summer — particularly since Trump's surge. He turned in a strong performance, talking powerfully about the need for a leader who understands the challenges of the new economy taking shape in America.
While the candidates pitched their visions for the Republican Party's future, they also were making the case that they would present the strongest general election challenge Clinton.
Five other Republican Party-sanctioned debates are scheduled before primary voting begins in February.
The Democratic National Committee meanwhile announced that the first of its series of six debates will be held Oct. 13 in Nevada.
The Associated Press