We’re still 460 days from the 2016 presidential election, but for two hours on Thursday night, all eyes turned to the stage of the first Republican presidential debate.
Jeb Bush stayed above the fray, but faced some uncomfortable questions. Chris Christie and Rand Paul clashed bitterly. Ben Carson struggled to get a word in edgewise. But the spotlight shined brightest on the man at center stage: Donald Trump, who is currently at the top of the national GOP primary polls. He was alternately cheered and booed by the audience at the Quicken Loans Arena and he didn’t pull his punches.
Here is a look at the ABC News team’s winners and losers -- and those in between -- from the first 2016 Republican debate:
Donald Trump: He got huge cheers for saying exactly what he thinks throughout the debate, never tempering his now-signature style. Right out of the gate moderator Bret Baier asked the ten candidates to raise their hand if any one was “unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?”
Trump was the only person to raise his hand -- even in the face of boos from the audience -- saying, “I cannot say.”
“I can totally make the pledge if I'm the nominee. I will pledge I will not run as an independent. I am discussing it with everybody. But I'm talking about a lot of leverage. We want to win and we will win. But I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee,” Trump said.
But throughout Trump stayed true to Trump, which is what got him to the top of the polls in the first place.
The Chris Christie vs. Rand Paul Clash: One of the better mini-brawls of the night took place early on between the New Jersey governor and Paul over national security and privacy. It’s not the first time the two have gone head-to-head, but this time it seemed to get personal. Christie was asked if he can really “assign blame to Sen. Paul for opposing the bulk collection of people's phone records in the event of a terrorist attack?”
Christie said yes, mentioning the Sept. 11 attacks before it escalated.
Christie turned to Paul and accused him of “sitting in a subcommittee blowing hot air,” to which Paul responded “Here's the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstood the Bill of Rights.”
Paul then brought up the hug heard ‘round the world with President Obama: “I don't trust president 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.”
Christie answered by saying the “hugs” that he remembers “are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11th. Those are the hugs I remember,” Christie said. Paul answered with an eye roll.
John Kasich: He was greeted as a hometown hero by the audience who rose to their feet to cheer when the Ohio governor was introduced. Kasich also got points for treating Donald Trump in a very different way than others on the stage, as his ally.
Kasich said Trump was “hitting a nerve in this country...he’s got his solutions, some of us have other solutions.” And when Trump said he had given money to his opponents standing next to him, Kasich jumped in and said: “You're welcome to give me a check, Donald if you would like...I hope you will give to me.” Soliciting campaign donations on a debate stage? It’s an innovative and possibly winning move. Trump answered, “Sounds to me, governor.”
Marco Rubio: Although no specific moment jumped out for Rubio on Thursday night, the Florida Senator proved he’s a contender.
Rubio, the youngest candidate on stage, showcased his oratory skills in an effort to frame himself as a candidate of the future. “Here's what the election better be about: This election better be about the future, not the past,” he said.
Rubio quipped that God “blessed the Republican Party some very good candidates. The Democrats can't even find one.” He also held his ground in an exchange with a polished Jeb Bush over Common Core.
Hillary Clinton: Hillary Clinton was far from the GOP debate stage tonight, but she emerged as a winner. She leads the Democratic field, was referred to as the likely nominee, and appeared above the fray while all ten on the stage tonight bickered.
Donald Trump may even make it easy for her, refusing to rule out a third party run, which would split the GOP vote. Several of the candidates tonight went after Clinton, but there were cheers tonight at her Brooklyn HQ when Marco Rubio said: “If this is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president.” Of course it wasn’t meant to be a compliment.
The Moderators: Besides some awkward banter here and there, Fox News anchors Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier, who co-moderated the debate, managed to keep order and ask probing questions under challenging circumstances. In particular, they kept the heat on Donald Trump.
Wallace challenged him on his business record, pointing out that “Trump corporations, casinos and hotels, have declared bankruptcy four times over the last quarter century.” And Kelly was similarly sharp: “When did you actually become a Republican?” Trump started his response by gesturing to the moderators: “I don’t think they like me very much.”
Donald Trump: It’s hard to come up with a winning answer when you’re asked a question about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump responded to moderator Megyn Kelly with a tongue in cheek response: “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he said. But Kelly wasn’t having it: “Does that sound like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
The Donald didn’t like that question very much either, telling Kelly, “Frankly what I say and oftentimes it's fun, 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 not be based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that.”
Planned Parenthood: After a series of disturbing videos surfaced allegedly showing employees of the group discussing prices for fetal tissue and body parts, the women’s health organization has been a huge target of Republican ire on the campaign trail. Tonight’s debate was no different.
“I defunded Planned Parenthood more than four years ago long before any of these videos came out,” Scott Walker said. And in even more stark language Mike Huckabee used the group to make a point about the Supreme Court: “It's time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they're parts of a Buick.”
Ben Carson: One of Carson’s main jobs on Thursday night was introducing himself to people who were unfamiliar with him. Unfortunately, he barely got a chance to get started. After his first question, the neurosurgeon went 38 minutes with no air time. “Thank you, Megyn, I wasn't sure I was going to get to talk again,” he told moderator Megyn Kelly after he was questioned again.
He also said that Clinton -- who is consistently leading the Democratic field by almost 40 percentage points -- would be easy to face in the general election. “If Hillary is the candidate, which I doubt, that would be a dream come true,” he said.
But Carson shined in the final moments of the debate, talking about unity despite racial tensions. “When I take someone to the operating room, I'm operating on the thing that makes they will who they are,” the neurosurgeon said. “The skin doesn't make them who they are.” He continued: “Those that want to divide us, we shouldn't let them do it.”
Jeb Bush: He was forced to explain his break with the party on immigration, was booed on his education stance, and continued to struggle with questions about the Iraq War and political dynasty. While he did nothing tonight to overtly damage his candidacy, he also failed to dispel the deep skepticism over his candidacy inside the party.
But Bush rose above the fray after Trump attacked Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, for giving the country to Obama. Bush also denied published reports that he’s privately called Trump a “buffoon” and worse. “Mr. Trump’s language is divisive,” Jeb Bush said. “We’re going to win when we unite people with a hopeful and optimistic message.”
Worth noting, however, that when Bush bragged in his opening remarks of his nickname as governor of Florida -- “Veto Corleone,” as he does regularly on the trail -- he’s referencing a movie that was released in 1972.