It started with fireworks, continued with fireworks and ended with fireworks. The first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign brought the current top 10 candidates according to the polls together in Cleveland to talk about a variety of issues, point out contrasts in their opponents’ records, and of course take aim at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
The 10 participants as determined by an average of five of the latest national polls included businessman Donald Trump, Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; Govs. Chris Christie, John Kasich and Scott Walker; former Govs. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Dr. Ben Carson. They answered a total of 20 questions from Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace of Fox News.
The debate kicked off with a question dealing with party loyalty.
“Gentlemen, we know how much you love hand-raising questions. So we promise, this is the only one tonight: the only one. Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is 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. Again, we’re looking for you to raise your hand now – raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight,” Baier asked the candidates.
Trump, the frontrunner in the polls, was the only candidate to raise his hand.
“Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump to be clear, you’re standing on a Republican primary debate stage.”
“I fully understand,” Trump responded.
“The place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod,” Baier said.
“I fully understand,” Trump answered.
“And that experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton. You can’t say tonight that you can make that pledge?”
“I cannot say. I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins, if I do win, and I’m leading by quite a bit, that’s what I want to do. I can totally make that pledge. If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent. But – and I am discussing it with everybody, but I’m, you know, 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 responded.
“So tonight, you can’t say if another one of these,” Baier said to Trump.
Then, Sen. Paul responded.
“This is what’s wrong. … I mean, this is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes, he’s already…,” Paul said.
“Dr. Paul,” Baier said.
“Hey, look, look! He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent…”
Later, Paul and Christie got into a debate over national security and citizen privacy in the post 9-11 era.
“… I’m the only person on this stage who’s actually filed applications under the Patriot Act, who has gone before the federal – the Foreign Intelligence Service court, who has prosecuted and investigated and jailed terrorists in this country after September 11th. I was appointed U.S. attorney by President Bush on September 10th, 2001, and the world changed enormously the next day, and that happened in my state,” Christie said.
“This is not theoretical to me. I went to the funerals. We lost friends of ours in the Trade Center that day. My own wife was two blocks from the Trade Center that day, at her office, having gone through it that morning. When you actually have to be responsible for doing this, you can do it, and we did it, for seven years in my office, respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland.”
“Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights,” Paul answered back. “Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants…”
“There is no…,” Christie said.
“indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records, and that’s what I fought to end. 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.”
During the two-hour debate, Huckabee spoke about several issues including the recent U.S. negotiations with Iran, the FAIR tax which is based on consumption and reforming entitlement programs. Huckabee also made his case against the Iran deal.
“The president can’t tell you what we got. I’ll tell you what the world got. The world has a burgeoning nuclear power that didn’t, as the Soviets, say ‘we might defend ourselves in a war.’ What the Iranians have said is, ‘we will wipe Israel off the face of the map, and we will bring death to America.’ When someone points a gun at your head and loads it, by God, you ought to take them seriously, and we need to take that seriously.”
Huckabee and Christie went back and forth on the entitlement issue.
“Yeah, sure. And, I don’t disagree with ending Congress’ retirement program. I’m a governor, I don’t have a retirement program in my state, and I don’t disagree with that. But, here’s the news to the American people, he’s complaining about the lying and stealing. The lying and stealing has already occurred. The trust fund is filled with IOU’s. We can’t fix the problem just by ending Congress’ retirement, that’s worth about, ‘this’ much,” Christie said, while holding his thumb and forefinger close together. “We need to go at the fundamental problem, and the fundamental problem is that this system is broken. It has been stolen from. We have been lied to, and we need a strong leader to tell the truth and fix [it]…”
Huckabee said the FAIR tax would capture money from the underground economy and other places.
“Well, you ask about how we fund it. One of the reasons that Social Security is in so much trouble is that the only funding stream comes from people who get a wage. The people who get wages is declining dramatically. Most of the income in this country is made by people at the top who get dividends and – and capital gains,” Huckabee said. “The Fair Tax transforms the process by which we fund Social Security and Medicare because the money paid in consumption is paid by everybody, including illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, all the people that are freeloading off the system now.”
There was plenty of humor aimed at Democrats and presumptive Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton during the debate.
“Well, first, let me say I think God has blessed us. He has blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one,” Rubio said.
“It seems like this election has been a whole lot about a person who’s very high in the polls, that doesn’t have a clue about how to govern,” Huckabee said as the audience thought he was talking about Trump. “A person who has been filled with scandals, and who could not lead, and, of course, I’m talking about Hillary Clinton.”
In a statement Thursday night, Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said the debate provided a real difference between the parties.
“While tonight’s Republican Presidential debate was more tame than pundits predicted, the ten candidates proved their skill at sewing division by playing on our fears, and appealing to the worse instincts of our nature.
“The 2016 Republican field is against everything hard-working Arkansans want and need. Whether a living wage, low interest student loans, or affordable health care, tonight the Republicans showed what they are against. Glaringly absent was a positive vision for our nation. Americans need a leader who is for something, not against every policy to give people who want to work hard an equal footing to get ahead,” Insalaco said.
“I am proud that, without the pomp and fury of a reality TV show, the 2016 Democratic candidates have begun to set forth a positive vision for America. Democrats believe in a living wage for working families. We believe there should be a desk for every child at a local, public pre-K. Arkansas Democrats believe the private option is good for Arkansas, and Arkansas families. All these things can move us forward, together,” Insalaco said.
Also, national Democrats announced Thursday their presidential debate schedule for 2016. The debate schedule includes:
• Oct. 13 (CNN) in Nevada
• Nov. 14 (CBS) in Des Moines, Iowa
• Dec. 19 (ABC) in Manchester, N.H.
• Jan. 17 (NBC) in Charleston, S.C.
• February or March – (Univision) in Miami
• February or March – (PBS) in Wisconsin
The next Republican debate is Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The debate will air on CNN.
The Arkansas primary is March 1, 2016.