- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2015

CLEVELAND — Donald Trump spanked the press, the rest of the GOP presidential field, and politicians in general, calling them “stupid” and refusing to commit to supporting the eventual 2016 Republican nominee, kicking off the first prime-time debate of the 2016 nominating contest Thursday by saying he can’t be sure anyone else will be able to match his tough-talking solutions.

The top 10 GOP candidates, as determined by the polls, squared off in Cleveland, but Mr. Trump, who has surged to the lead since announcing his campaign in June, dominated the back-and-forth, with his fellow candidates repeatedly forced to respond to him and acknowledge he’s tapped into deep dissatisfaction among Republican voters.

Throughout, Mr. Trump delivered lectures to the entire political class, calling them incompetent and saying they are too worried about offending people.

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he told Fox host Megyn Kelly, who asked him about disparaging comments he’s made toward women. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness and to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

When confronted with comments such as calling women “fat pigs” or “slobs,” Mr. Trump quipped that was just actress and comic Rosie O’Donnell — drawing laughter and applause from the audience, but a rebuke from Ms. Kelly, who said his attack was “well beyond” Ms. O’Donnell. “I’m sure it was,” Mr. Trump admitted.

Mr. Trump then defended his campaign donations to Democrats, including Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, implying he’d bought her off with donations to her Senate campaign and to her husband’s foundation.

PHOTOS: Inside the first GOP debate of 2016 race

“I said be at my wedding, and she came to my wedding. She had no choice,” he said, going on to say that he’d also donated to some of his fellow GOP candidates on stage, too.

Fireworks also erupted over how far the government should go to search for would-be terrorists, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defending government snooping to try to sniff out bad actors, and Sen. Rand Paul, who led the fight to end the National Security Agency’s controversial phone-data collection program, accusing the governor of botching American history.

“Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights,” Mr. Paul told Mr. Christie, mocking him for his famous hug of President Obama during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“Senator Paul, the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11th,” Mr. Christie retorted, referring to his time as a federal prosecutor, which he said gave him a better perspective than Mr. Paul’s time in the Senate, “when you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot air about this.”

The candidates sparred intensely over immigration, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defending his comment last year that illegal immigrants were committing an “act of love” for their families by sneaking into the U.S.

“I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family. But we need to control our border. It is our responsibility to pick and choose who comes in,” he said. “And there should be a path to earned legal status for those that are free — not amnesty — earned legal status.”

SEE ALSO: 2016 Republican field in search of a uniter kicks off debates

Mr. Trump countered that the solution was to build a border wall.

And several of his fellow candidates said those sort of stances are what have catapulted Mr. Trump to the top of the GOP field, capturing an anti-Washington anger that stems from decades of failure to solve illegal immigration.

“It’s not a question of stupidity, it’s that they don’t want to enforce the immigration laws,” Sen. Ted Cruz said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who led the push in Congress two years ago for a bill legalizing most illegal immigrants, said he also supports more fencing, but said it’s not a complete answer.

“The problem is that [if] El Chapo built a tunnel under the fence we have to deal with that, too,” he said, alluding to the head of the Sinaloa cartel, who recently escaped from a Mexican prison. “And that’s why you need an E-Verify system, and you need an entry-exit tracking system, and all sorts of other things to prevent illegal immigration.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who supports legalizing illegal immigrants already in the country, acknowledged Mr. Trump was “hitting a nerve in this country.”

“For people that want to just tune him out, they’re making a mistake. Now he’s got his solutions, some of us have other solutions,” Mr. Kasich said, going on to tout his own record on balancing budgets. “We all have solutions. Mr. Trump is touching a nerve because they want to see a wall be built. They want to see an end to illegal immigration. We all do, but we all have different ways of getting there.”

Mr. Kasich also revealed that he recently attended a same-sex wedding, despite his own belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean I can’t care about them and can’t love them,” he said.

Rounding out the 10 candidates on the stage were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Mr. Huckabee found himself on the defensive over his stance that Social Security’s retirement age can be kept the same without damaging the fiscal health of the program.

“He is just wrong,” Mr. Christie said. “If we don’t deal with this problem, it will bankrupt this country or lead to massive tax increases.”

But Mr. Huckabee said Social Security recipients should not be punished because of bad decisions made by the government, which has borrowed all the money from the program’s trust funds.

“It is always that the government figures it can do this off the backs of people, many of whom are poor and depend on that money and I just think it is fundamentally lying to the people and stealing from them, and we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said, saying he’d cut Congress’s retirement programs first.

But it was Mr. Trump, who has an extensive record of statements that are at times at odds with the conservative Republican philosophy, who found himself the most popular target, including having to explain his companies’ bankruptcy filings.

“I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City,” Mr. Trump said, explaining his casino’s retreat from the downtrodden town in Mr. Christie’s state, which he said came before the going got really bad. “Chris can tell you, every company virtually in Atlantic City went bankrupt.”

Mr. Trump also defended his campaign donations to Democrats and his previous support for socialized medicine.

“It could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about here,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Paul, who had earlier attacked Mr. Trump for refusing to commit to supporting the GOP nominee, pounced again.

“I have got a news flash, the Republican party has been fighting against a single-payer system for a decade. So I think you are on the wrong side of this,” the senator said.

Mr. Trump was also a target for the seven lower-tier candidates who didn’t make the stage for the prime-time debate, but who took part in a separate debate earlier in the day, also aired by Fox News.

“Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?” former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina asked her rivals on stage, referring to a news report that Mr. Trump had called Mr. Clinton several times before his June campaign announcement. “I didn’t. Maybe it is because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign.”

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the election would be a “show-me, don’t tell-me election,” and several candidates pointed to their own years in office as the antidote to the style of governing they said both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama represent.

“We’ve got a lot of great talkers running for president. We’ve already got a great talker in the White House,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said. “We cannot afford four more years of on-the-job training.”

It was one of the oddities of the election that some of the most experienced candidates — Mr. Perry, with 14 years as governor, former New York Gov. George Pataki, who served three terms, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, with 20 years as a congressman and U.S. senator — were relegated to what was pejoratively known as the “kiddie’s table” debate. Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and former Sen. Rick Santorum rounded out the seven candidates in the early debate.

Under pointed questioning from Fox hosts Bill Hemmer and Martha McCallum, they all defended why they belonged in the crowded field of candidates, despite not gaining much traction.

Mr. Santorum, the runner-up to Mitt Romney in the GOP’s 2012 nomination fight, trails badly in polling this time around, but said he believes his message from last time will eventually break through this year.

“Americans are tired of Washington corporate interests and Democrats who are interested in just politics and power and they’re looking for someone who’s going to fight for them,” he said, echoing the same sort of outsider theme that Ms. Fiorina used.

Still, she said Mr. Trump had shown the Republican establishment it needs to be wary.

“I think he’s tapped into an anger that people feel. They’re sick of politics as usual. You know, whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hoped would resolved, the political class has failed you. That’s just a fact, and that’s what Donald Trump taps into,” she said.

But she questioned what principles Mr. Trump would follow to govern, accusing him of flip-flopping on major issues.

“He has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion,” Ms. Fiorina said.

Seth McLaughlin and Dave Boyer contributed to this article.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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