Behind Trump bluster a tough Republican race takes shape

Behind Trump bluster a tough Republican race takes shape
Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump took center stage at the first major Republican presidential debate Thursday, but a strong showing from less brash candidates revealed a strong field and a fiercely competitive race ahead.

Trump insulted comedian Rosie O'Donnell boasted about his Atlantic City casino business and got jeered by what should have been a sympathetic crowd.

But Trump may have gained more publicity than polling points during a disjointed and fractious two-hour debate.

Meanwhile to his left and right, a host of candidates - from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, to Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - cemented their status as serious contenders.

Thursday's debate offered each of the nine other candidates on stage a rare chance to burst through the crowded field in which many candidates have yet to poll in double digits.

And what an opportunity it was.

The first Republican debate of the 2012 election cycle drew around three million television viewers. Predictions for Thursday night's spectacle ran up to 15 million, by far the most of any primary debate ever.

But with the stakes so high, most chose to play it safe, leaving the moderators to challenge the frontrunner Trump, while focusing on being seen as substantive and presidential.

"No one made any kind of gigantic gaff that was going to end the game for them," said Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Only Rand Paul - who comes from the out-of-fashion libertarian wing of the party - took on Trump directly, accusing him of buying politicians.

The rest focused on introducing themselves to voters.

Walker, who made a name for himself fighting trade unions, positioned himself as an "aggressively normal" Midwesterner - a region that could be key to the election outcome.

He also made some headway in addressing his weaknesses on foreign policy, stressing the need for alliances in Arab Gulf states.

"He maybe exceeded expectations on foreign policy questions and for him that has to look good," Skelley said.

"There are probably some insiders in the Republican establishment and the Republican donor class who are still uncertain about him." US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio - perhaps the fiercest political talent in the pool - presented himself as the embodiment of the American dream, a son of immigrants who made a new life in America after fleeing Cuba.

With one eye on the general election, he managed to draw sharp contrast with the likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

"Rubio did a really good job pointing out that he would be a great contrast with Hillary Clinton if she is the democratic nominee in that he would try to run a future versus the past campaign," Skelley said.

"His would be the future, she would be the past." Top fundraiser Jeb Bush stumbled into the evening after a difficult week where he drew fire for expressing uncertainty about needing "half a billion dollars for women's health issues." As the brother and son of former presidents, he leaned heavily on his experience as Florida governor to distinguish himself.

"Bush had one goal in mind, and that was to convince voters that he is not his brother or his father, that he is his own man and has his own policies," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

"It seemed that he did a very good job of explaining who he was." Christie, meanwhile, showed a little of his New Jersey grit, saying former governor Mike Huckabee was "just wrong" in his calculations on social security, and attacking Paul on his stance on homeland security.

- Knock-down-drag-out - =======================

Ultimately Thursday night may say very little about who Republicans will anoint as a presidential nominee a year from now in the same Cleveland arena.

But several candidates are still in a position to create a buzz that fuels fundraising and builds momentum running in to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries early in 2016.

That is likely to signal another knock-down-drag-out Republican primary like 2012, when candidates surged only to fall into irrelevance.

"We have an enormous amount of time to go," said Brown. "Iowa is seven months away. The question is who can keep the money flowing." "It is quite possible that the primaries in April will still be determinative," he said.

As for Trump, his greater relevance may hinge on what happens if he doesn't get the nomination.

The self-funding billionaire's pointed refusal to rule out a third party run or to endorse the eventual nominee will give party poohbahs shivers.

"Anyone with a pulse will know that, if he were to run as an independent, that's exactly the kind of move that might help Hillary Clinton win," said Skelley.

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