Updated at 11:36 p.m.
All eyes were on billionaire businessman Donald Trump Thursday night — and he didn’t disappoint.
On the very first question, Trump refused to promise to back the eventual GOP nominee — unless it’s him — and won’t rule out launching a third-party bid. He jabbed at moderator Megyn Kelly when asked about his comments on women, called reporters “a very dishonest lot,” declared that “our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid,” and was unapologetic about his wealth and businesses.
Since he announced in June, the reality TV star has risen quickly to the top of the polls, much to the chagrin of many in the GOP establishment, who worry about his controversial statements about Mexican immigrants and more.
And it was clear those fears might be well-founded, especially if Trump does run as a third-party candidate. Polls show a Trump independent bid would pull votes from Republicans and, at this point, give the race to Democrat Hillary Clinton, if she’s the nominee.
Trump was at center stage since he’s leading in the polls, flanked by the other candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
There were other clashes during the two-hour debate. Paul and Christie had a very testy exchange over national security. Paul has supported rolling back NSA surveillance programs, but Christie has slammed him for those statements, saying it hampers national security.
Bush had to defend his positions on immigration reform and Common Core educational standards, and he tried to cast a more positive tone against Trump — drawing a notable contrast between the two.
Both Rubio and Walker tried to paint themselves as everymen and got good receptions. Paul argued he’s a different kind of Republican who can reach out to different segments of voters. Carson came across as methodical, Huckabee brought his usual humor and Cruz passionately argued his conservative beliefs.
Kasich — who narrowly got into the debate — also didn’t back down from his more controversial positions with conservatives, such as expanding Medicaid in his state and saying gay marriage was now the “law of the land.”
The main debate comes just hours after the seven candidates who didn’t make the cut met for what they had termed the “Happy Hour debate.” Even then, the focus was on the top-tier candidates, as the lower-tier hopefuls took shots at Trump, Bush and even Kasich. Only former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina stood out and got rave reviews on social media from conservatives.
You can read our liveblog of the two-hour debate below. And check out the NPR Politics team’s livechat here.
11:22 p.m. Here are the final debate speaking times, calculated by NPR Politics interns Lauren Leatherby and James Doubek:
1. Trump 10:30
2. Bush 8:33
3. Huckabee 6:32
4-tie Carson/Cruz 6:28
6. Kasich 6:25
7. Rubio 6:22
8. Christie 6:03
9. Walker 5:43
10. Paul 4:51
11 p.m. In their closing statements, the candidates mostly hew close to their talking points, but Carson stood out with his funny comments. Saying everyone has talked about things they’ve done, he has a unique one — separating conjoined twins. “I’m the only one to talk out half a brain. Though if you go to Washington, you’d think someone beat me to it.”
10:50 p.m. Candidates are asked about what God is teaching them while running for president. Cruz says he hears God every day through the scriptures. Kasich says he believes in miracles and that God wants the U.S. to be strong.
Carson is also asked about race relations. He says he was asked by an NPR reporter “why I don’t talk more about race relations,” and it’s because he’s a neurosurgeon.
10:45 p.m. Huckabee on transgender troops in the military: “The military is not a social experiment…The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.”
10:42 p.m. Candidates begin criticizing the Obama administration on foreign policy and the Iran deal. It’s Walker who gets in maybe the best zinger by turning it around to Hillary Clinton and her email scandal: “China and Russia probably know more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than members of the U.S. Congress do.”
10:33 p.m. Kasich, before a hometown crowd tonight, get a positive response when he’s asked about his position on gay marriage. While he says he an “old fashioned” guy and still believes marriage is between one man and one woman, he concedes that the Supreme Court’s decision in June makes same sex marriage the law of the land.
“Just because someone doesn’t think the same way I do, doesn’t mean we can’t care about them,” Kasich says, noting he went to a gay wedding just a few days ago. “If god gives me unconditional love, I’m going to give it to my friends and family and the people around me.”
Kasich so far hasn’t backed down from this position and his support for Medicaid expansion that most conservatives disagree with.
10:29 p.m. Trump is pressed on when he became a Republican and where he stands on abortion. He doesn’t answer the first question, and as for abortion he falls back on a Republican talking point — he’s evolved, just like Ronald Reagan.
Next to him, Bush denies a report that he had unleashed on Trump. No harm, no foul, it seems, and Trump calls Bush a “true gentleman.”
10:24 p.m. Bush has to defend his time on the Bloomberg foundation board, which gave money to Planned Parenthood. He says he didn’t know about it at the time, but says he doesn’t regret sitting on the board — which he joined because of education reform. Notes he defunded Planned Parenthood as governor.
10:18 p.m. The next question is over the Iran nuclear deal. Paul says Obama was negotiating from a “place of weakness.” Huckabee calls it a deal “in which we got nothing.” But even as they’re debating this, the deal appears to be falling apart in Congress — soon-to-be Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has just come out saying he opposes the deal.
10:14 p.m. Some of the most heated exchanges of the evening have been between Trump and the moderators. This time, Chris Wallace gets under his skin when he presses him about his companies’ bankruptcies. Trump, as usual, is unapologetic, saying he’s simply “taken advantage of the laws of the land” as any good businessman would, and again touts his net worth of $10 billion, which some have said is overstated.
Wallace keeps pressing him over a Trump Entertainment venture in Atlantic City that went bankrupt, but he fires back to Wallace, “You are living in a world of make believe.”
10:06 p.m Halfway through, we’ve calculated the talk time so far for each candidate. Trump is on top:
- Trump – 5:06
- Bush – 4:29
- Cruz – 3:30
- Rubio – 3:00
- Christie – 2:50
- Carson – 2:45
- Kasich – 2:11
- Huckabee – 2:03
- Paul – 2:01
- Walker – 1:54
10:04 p.m. Bush also defends his assertion that he can grow the economy at a 4 percent rate — despite the fact that hasn’t been done in decades. “We need to lift our spirit and have lofty expectations of this great country of ours,” Bush says optimistically. My colleague Danielle Kurtzleben did a fact check on this earlier, finding his claim was unlikely.
9:55 p.m. Bush gets the Common Core question — heretical to conservatives. Bush gives a passionate answer though — “We aren’t going to compete in the world with lowering expectations and dumbing down everything” — emphasizing he’s for higher standers and not national requirements.
But Rubio, who saw Bush as onetime mentor, says “It should happen at the state and local level.” While Common Core is a state-based program, the federal government has provided incentives if it is implemented.
9:49 p.m. We’re back to Trump. He’s asked about his past support for a single payer health care system, but instead starts by answering a question he wasn’t asked about the war on Iraq. “I was the only one on this stage who had the vision” to come out against the war, he says.
He does somewhat answer the health care question, saying the single payer system works in Canada, and in a different age, 15 years ago or so, it could have worked.
Paul — the biggest attack dog against Trump so far — jumps in: “Newsflash – the Republican Party has been fighting against a single payer health system for a decade.”
Trump, never without a retort, responds to Paul: “I don’t think you heard me. You’re having a hard time tonight.”
9:39 p.m. Forget the Trump show — the Paul vs. Christie debate just burst into flames. Christie has been highly critical of Paul’s push to end NSA wiretap programs, while Christie has said it’s a crucial part of national security. Paul’s position on this issue puts him at odds with most of the stage, but it’s Christie who has gone on attack on him over this before. Now, it’s out in the open.
“When you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot hair about things like that, you can say things like that,” said Christie.
Paul jabbed back, implying Christie was too close to Obama: “If you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.”
“The only hugs that I remember are the ones I gave to people who lost loved ones on Sept. 11,” Christie responds. He became U.S. Attorney for New Jersey on Sept. 10, 2001.
9:32 p.m. Wallace tries to goad Kasich into criticizing Trump’s rhetoric, but he surprisingly doesn’t take the bait, admitting that Trump has “touched a nerve.”
“We need to take lessons from Donald Trump,” said Kasich. “If people want to just tune him out, they’re making a mistake.
9:25 p.m. Trump pressed by Chris Wallace on specifics about his illegal immigration comments and where he got his statistics on Mexican immigrants. He still doesn’t give any specifics, but boasts the field wouldn’t be talking about illegal immigration if it weren’t for him (despite the fact it’s been a pressing issue in Congress for several years now).
Instead, he blames the media for turning his comments around. “Reporters are a very disingenuous lot, generally” he declares. Trump reiterates that a fence is needed but there can be a “big, beautiful door” in that wall where people can come through legally.
Trump hits back that the U.S. leaders are stupid” while the Mexican government is “cunning…they send the bad ones over.”
9:22 p.m. Bush says he stand behind his comments that illegal immigrants come her as “an act of love.” But he reiterates border security as a necessity.
9:20 p.m. Kasich gets the Medicaid expansion question. It was a controversial move from the Republican governor among conservatives, and he was even attacked for it in the earlier debate. Kelly asks him about his faith informing that decision — would it cause him to expand all government programs. Kasich stands behind his decision, and argues Ohio is better off because of it, ticking off Ohio successes and budgets that weren’t hurt by his decision.
9:12 p.m. Another classic Trump moment. Moderator Megyn Kelly presses Trump on his controversial comments about women, including calling them “pigs.” Trump, unfazed, immediately jabs back, “That was just Rosie O’Donnell.”
Kelly isn’t fazed either, and keeps pressing him. But Trump is unapologetic. “Frankly, I don’t have time for total political correctness,” he says to cheers. “What I say, often times, it’s fun, it’s kidding. What I say is what I say,” and continues to hit Kelly. It’s exchanges like these that have Republicans very worried and Democrats gleeful.
9:10 p.m. Rubio gets a question about his personal finances, and he turns it back around as a hit against Clinton. ”
“If I’m our nominee how is Hillary going to lecture me about living paycheck to pay check?” Rubio asks, noting he only recently paid off his student loans. This is where Rubio’s perceived liabilities are an asset — his financial struggles are relatable in a way Clinton’s aren’t.
9:05 p.m. It begins with the first question — when asked by moderator Bret Baier if any candidate would not pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee and not run as an independent, Trump raises his hand.
“I fully understand” what this means, he says, to a smattering of cheers and boos.
Paul, sensing his opening, immediately went on the attack. “He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. He’s already hedging his bets on the Clintons.”
If you thought this was going to be a boring debate, think again.