CLEVELAND—A combative Donald Trump, the U.S. billionaire businessman-turned-presidential candidate, jolted the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign last night with his brash, confrontational comments.
But the event also served as a reminder the race still remains leaderless and unsettled.
Asked in the debate’s opening minutes whether he could rule out running for America’s top post as an independent candidate, Trump declared, “I will not make the pledge at this time.”
He also refused to apologize for making crude comments about women, defended his changing policy positions, and tangled with the debate moderators.
Should Trump opt for a third-party run, he likely would split the Republican vote—making it more likely that Democrat front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton would win—giving her party a third-straight term in the White House.
During the two-hour session, Trump put to rest speculation he would tone down his divisive rhetoric that many expected would be ruinous to his campaign, but instead helped him rise quickly to the top of the polls.
He brushed aside questions about his public denigration of women, explaining he has no time for political correctness, and said he had done nothing but used American laws when four of his companies took bankruptcy.
Trump was the only one of 10 candidates to raise his hand when the Fox News hosts asked who would not pledge to support the eventual party nominee.
Trump’s refusal enraged Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who said Trump was “already hedging his bets because he’s used to buying politicians.”
Fifteen months from the election, Trump remains a longshot candidate to replace President Barack Obama.
But the event was a key test for Trump, whose unpredictable style and unformed policy positions mean he doesn’t fit neatly into any single wing of the Republican Party.
That appears to be a draw to some Republicans frustrated with Washington and career politicians.
But others fear his eccentricities and outlandish comments—whether about Mexican immigrants being “criminals” and “rapists” or his questioning of the war record of Sen. John McCain—will taint the American public’s view of the party.