Observers divided over Trump after GOP debate

Some say he did not look presidential; others stress he proved he was different from rivals

Among the 10 Republican presidential hopefuls in the prime-time debate on Thursday in Cleveland were (from left) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Mr Donald Trump and former governor Jeb Bush. The candidates were selected based on their ranking in the
Among the 10 Republican presidential hopefuls in the prime-time debate on Thursday in Cleveland were (from left) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Mr Donald Trump and former governor Jeb Bush. The candidates were selected based on their ranking in the five most recent national polls.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Republican front runner Donald Trump was his usual controversial, combative self while facing off against nine other GOP (Grand Old Party) candidates at the first debate of the 2016 presidential cycle.

Yet, his failure to outline any substantive policy left observers divided over whether the firebrand billionaire helped his chances of securing the Republican nomination.

Those who argued that Mr Trump left the debate stage in Cleveland, Ohio, diminished say he suffered when standing next to the more conventional candidates. Others stressed that the businessman succeeded in reaffirming the message that got him top billing at the debate in the first place: He is different from everyone else.

Said Dr Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor at Texas A&M University: "I think we may see Trump slide in the polls. Not only did he not look presidential, but he also said some pretty awful things about women and received extended boos from the audience."

By the end of the two-hour-long broadcast on Thursday night,

Mr Trump had boasted about using bankruptcy rules to get out of sticky situations, joked about having called some women "fat pigs", and took potshots at everyone from his fellow candidates to journalists to the debate moderators.

The spotlight was turned on him right from the start, as moderators from Fox News opened the proceedings by asking all 10 candidates whether they would pledge to support whoever ultimately prevails in the nomination process. The question was clearly targeted at Mr Trump, who had previously indicated an intention to run as an independent if he did not win the Republican nomination, and indeed he was the only one who would not commit to supporting the eventual nominee.

Political scientist John Barry Ryan, author of the book Experts, Activists And Democratic Politics, said that might prove a pivotal moment for Mr Trump. "Those who liked Trump going into this debate probably still like him. But you cannot say you may run as an independent or have such a combative tone and win support from party leaders," he told The Straits Times.

On stage, only Kentucky Senator Rand Paul jumped on Mr Trump's response: "He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. He is already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK?"

Later when Mr Paul, who uses a hearing aid, interrupted Mr Trump during an exchange on healthcare policy, the latter retorted: "I don't think you heard me. You are having a hard time tonight."

Still, the biggest fireworks of the night did not feature Mr Trump. It was the other straight-talking candidate, Mr Chris Christie, who got into a shouting match with Mr Paul over the United State government's surveillance programmes. The New Jersey governor stressed that law enforcement needed all the intelligence-gathering tools possible, while Mr Paul said the mass surveillance curbed civil liberties.

Mr Paul took a shot at Mr Christie for once having hugged President Barack Obama, who visited New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy during the 2012 election campaign.

"I don't trust Mr Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead," said Mr Paul. Mr Christie responded: "The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families that lost their people on Sept 11."

The other front runners - former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker - put in muted and safe performances, rarely deviating from their campaign speeches and talking points about President Obama's so-called weak leadership.

In the end, the prime-time event produced no clear winners.

One did emerge, however, from a debate earlier in the day featuring the seven candidates at the bottom of the polls: former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina. She may well make it to the main event by Sept 16, when the second GOP debate takes place.

The Republican Party said the opening debates showed its nomination process will be a "true competition" in contrast with the coronation at the Democratic Party.

Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton said in a statement earlier in the day she was not watching the debate because the candidates "are out of step with the kind of country Americans want for themselves and their children".

She tweeted during the debate: "Bet you feel like donating to a Democrat right about now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Observers divided over Trump after GOP debate'. Subscribe