First GOP debate: Donald Trump gets the most attention, plus 10 key moments

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Ten Republican candidates have wrapped up the first debate of the long campaign for the 2016 presidential election. They hit on topics including immigration, foreign policy, abortion and, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some highlights and more below:

Politicos dub debate 'fantastic and brutal,' defined by Trump drama

Two conservative California politicos who tuned in to the debate offer their first take on winners, losers and what comes next:

“The drama, the intrigue, was mostly about Trump. With the exception of Rand Paul at the very beginning of the debate, the field tended to avoid direct confrontations with Trump. I believe you'll see more of this going forward -- letting Trump thrive or hang himself with his own rope," said Bill Whalen, research fellow with Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

"Trump, Bush, Walker and Kasich seemed to have the strongest night. There may be 17 candidates in the field, but only a handful are really driving and defining this contest,” he said.

“I think this has been a fantastic and brutal introduction to our candidates. I wish they would focus on their own platforms and attacking failed Democrat policies rather than attacking themselves, but they are being baited, it's great for ratings, and each candidate wants their sound bites replayed on the news and quoted on Twitter," said Matt Shupe, executive director of the California Young Republicans Federation and a political consultant.

“I think we need to be more aggressive on ISIS, tear up the Iran deal, we need meaningful and significant immigration reform, and [to] be more proactive in fixing our economy. However, I am somewhat of a one-issue voter, that issue being general election electability,” said Shupe.

By the numbers, Trump got the most attention



If Donald Trump hoped to capitalize during the debate on his penchant for confrontation and attention-grabbing statements, he succeeded based on social media traffic, according to numbers compiled by The Times.

Trump gained the most Twitter followers during the debate, was the most discussed on Facebook, and was involved in the majority of incidents in which candidates brought their opponents into the discussion.

The billionaire turned politico increased his Twitter follower count by more than 22,000 during the debate (he has over 3.5 million followers). According to Facebook, he was also the most discussed candidate during the debate on the social media site.

And, of the 19 instances in which candidates directly addressed or mentioned one of their opponents, 11 involved Trump in some way.

While Trump's follower count increased the most, all of the candidates on stage picked up additional followers. On average, each candidate emerged from the debate with about 5,900 more.

Politicians who were not on the stage were also mentioned plenty of times, especially Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former secretary of State's name was dropped 18 times, while President Obama's name was invoked 13 times.

Former President Reagan also came up six times.

The 10 lines that capture the 10 candidates' key moments

There were fireworks, stumbles, real policy and a few laughs -- and not all of it revolved around Donald Trump.

After all the shouting, the first Republican primary debate looks like a pretty full showcase of what the sprawling field of candidates has to offer. All 10 had a moment to show what they can do, and what they can't.

Here's a roundup of each candidate and his most memorable line, for better or worse:

> Ohio Gov. John Kasich played the optimist and the grownup: “You know, America is a miracle country. And we have to restore the sense that the miracle will apply to you.”

> Sen. Rand Paul tried to play the antagonist, both with Gov. Chris Christie and Trump. “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. But I'd say that he's already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians.”

> Sen. Marco Rubio played up his immigrant upbringing and his youth: “If I'm our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.”

> New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got a chance to dive deep into his plan for entitlement reform, dismissing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's promises: “No, he's not lying; he's just wrong. I'm the only guy on this stage who's put out a detailed, 12-point plan on entitlement reform.”

> Sen. Ted Cruz was clear on how he'd govern: “If you're looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain't your guy.”

> Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a chance to explain his reversal on immigration policy: “I actually listened to the American people. And I think people across America want a leader who's actually going to listen to them”

> Ben Carson , a retired neurosurgeon, provided the punchlines that let the debate end on an upbeat note. “I'm the only one to separate Siamese twins.”

> Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at times seemed uneasy and unsure, but he sent the message he hopes will stick. "I want to win. I want one of these people here ... to be the next president of the United States. We're not going on win by doing what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do each and every day. Dividing the country. Saying, creating a grievance kind of environment. We're going to win when we unite people with a hopeful, optimistic message."

> Trump , ever the scene-stealer, had several memorable moments -- largely when he tussled with Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. The most important, however, lies at the heart of the primary contest. He would not promise not to run as an independent: “ I cannot say 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.”

Trump was clear about his (lack of) loyalty to the GOP

Donald Trump made news early on. When a moderator asked candidates whether they would pledge to support whomever ultimately won the party's nomination for president, as well as rule out an independent bid, Trump raised his hand to indicate he wouldn't.

“I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee,” he said. But when pressed, he repeated: “I will not make the pledge at this time.”

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What immigrant advocates are saying about the debate

God has blessed us with some very good candidates. The Democrats can't even find one.
Marco Rubio

When did Donald Trump become a Republican?

Megyn Kelly asked, Donald Trump answered. It's still not entirely clear. But the tycoon and GOP candidate acknowledged Thursday that he's “evolved” from a New Yorker surrounded by Democrats to an antiabortion Republican.

“I have evolved on many issues over the years and you know who else has? Ronald Reagan has evolved on many issues,” he said.

Trump suggested the evolution had something to do with the collapse of the housing market and the Wall Street crisis at the tale end of the George W. Bush administration. As he explained, he turned to Jeb Bush, standing at his left, and acknowledged this might be personal.

At the end of the Bush administration we "really started to see some of the negatives,” Trump said. “The last number of months of his brother's administration were a catastrophe and unfortunately those few months gave us President Obama and you can't be happy about that.”

Trump did not spell out why a catastrophe under a Republican administration would move him toward the Republican Party. It's especially perplexing given that Trump already noted that he always opposed the invasion of Iraq, the core of Republican foreign policy for years.

On abortion, Trump was clearer on his shift, but not on the timing. He had friends “years ago” who considered aborting a child and didn't. “That child today is a total superstar -- a great, great child.” It changed his thinking, he said.

The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things ... not to ... try out some idea that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. ... I'm not sure how paying for transgender surgery ... makes our country safer.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Thursday night. Huckabee, a self-described culture warrior, made comments about the transgender community earlier this year.

How much would it cost to enforce current immigration laws?

Several Republican candidates at tonight's debate have talked about the need to increase border security and enforce current immigration laws.

What they haven't mentioned was the cost.

Deporting the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally and keeping others out could take 20 years and cost half a trillion dollars, studies show. A recent study by the American Action Forum put the cost of apprehending, detaining and removing all of those people at $400 billion to $600 billion. That includes $100 billion to $300 billion to arrest and remove all immigrants in the country illegally and an additional $315 billion to keep new immigrants from unlawfully living in the U.S.

Several candidates, including billionaire Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have talked about the need to build a fence along the 1,951-mile border with Mexico. The price tag for that is not exactly known and would depend on what kind of fence is built. Between 2006 and 2009, the U.S. government spent $2.4 billion to build 670 miles of border fence.

Clinton spokeswoman on Trump's wedding comments: 'It hurts her feelings'

Jen Palmieri, Clinton's spokeswoman, told The Times' Evan Halper that Trump's accusation that Hillary Rodham Clinton attended his wedding only because he had donated to her family's foundation was ridiculous. "He invited her to the wedding. Why did he want her to go? ... It hurts her feelings."

Here's what a wedding photo looked like:

In any case, Clinton isn't picking favorites in the debate.

"They are all so out of touch it is hard to choose," her campaign manager, Robby Mook, told Halper.

Kasich: This guy has a reputation for anger?

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio spar over Common Core

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, two top-tier candidates with deep roots in Florida politics, showed stark differences in Thursday's debate in their views on the federal government and its role in education.

Bush, a former Florida governor, is a staunch supporter of Common Core, a national education standard for K-12 students being implemented in dozens of states. Many Republican governors have balked at the suggestions from the federal government on the education proposals.

“I'm for higher standards,” said Bush, who has consistently been assailed for his support of Common Core.

When Rubio, who has served as a senator from Florida since 2010, was asked why Bush is wrong for supporting the national education standards, he was direct.

“Here is the problem with Common Core. The Department of Education will never be satisfied. They will not stop with making it a suggestion. They will make it a mandate. In fact, what they will say to local communities is, 'You will not get federal money if you don't do things the way we want you to.' They will use Common Core and any other requirements that exist nationally to force it down the throats of our people in our states.”

When Bush was asked whether he agreed, he acknowledged their bond.

“He's definitely my friend,” said Bush. “I think these states need to create these standards.”

Don't feel sorry for lenders who lose (even if they lose big)

When asked about those who have suffered losses based on his companies' bankruptcies, Trump responded that lenders are not babies. "They're total killers."

Fact-checking on immigration: Trump's claim doesn't hold up; Rubio's does

Donald Trump did not back down from his controversial claims that Mexico is sending criminals to the U.S.

Asked by moderators in Thursday night's GOP debate about whether he had proof of such a trend, Trump repeated his claim that Mexican leaders are sending their bad apples north because leaders there are smarter than those in the U.S.

Trump's repeated claims that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists and commit crimes at higher rates than native-born Americans doesn't jibe with statistics, though.

Multiple studies show that first-generation immigrants commit crimes at significantly lower rates than the overall population.

Marco Rubio, also asked to address immigration, said Trump's calls for increased immigration enforcement is clearly "hitting a nerve" among voters. But he poked a hole in one part of Trump's argument, saying the majority of immigrants crossing the southern border illegally are not Mexicans.

Rubio was right. U.S. border apprehensions of Mexicans have fallen to historic lows in recent years. In 2014, more non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended at U.S. borders, according to Pew Research Center. The last time Mexican apprehensions were as low as they are now was in 1970.

Hillary, the candidate? 'A dream come true'

If Hillary is the candidate ... that would be a dream come true.... She is the epitome of the center-progressive movement.
Ben Carson

An hour in: Brawls aplenty, and a few assessments

Do you have bingo yet?


We're halfway through, and Jeb Bush isn't wearing a red or blue tie (it's purple), Planned Parenthood has been panned, and the candidates are definitely talking over one another. You could be close to "Bingo!" Read more and play on.

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Hillary and Bill went to Donald's wedding

Trump jabs at Rand Paul

I don't think you heard me. You're having a hard time tonight.
Donald Trump to Sen. Rand Paul, who attacked Trump right from the start of the debate

Rand Paul rolls his eyes as Chris Christie mentions Sept. 11

Here's how Obama explains avoiding the term 'Islamic extremism'

Several Republican candidates on the debate stage tonight have emphasized that they'll start the fight against terrorism with their terminology - particularly the phrase "Islamic extremism." It's a jab at President Obama, who has avoided the term, insisting, "We are not at war with Islam."

Earlier this year, Times White House correspondents Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey took a look at why Obama skips the phrase:

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Jeb and Iraq and his brother

Amnesty and immigration: It gets heated

L.A. Times ()

L.A. Times

Trump: I'm the reason we're talking about illegal immigration

 (L.A. Times)

(L.A. Times)

If it weren't for me, you wouldn't even be talking about illegal immigration.
Donald Trump

Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country. And for people that just want to tune him out, they're making a mistake.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, on Donald Trump

One candidate, one moderator came ready to challenge Trump

At least one candidate and one moderator came to Thursday's debate ready to take on Donald Trump.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose campaign has been slouching toward the second tier for weeks, jumped into the fray on the first question.

When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they could not pledge not to run as an independent, Trump held his up and shrugged. He wouldn't run as an independent if he won the GOP nomination, he said, stating the obvious.

Paul didn't wait to pipe up.

“He buys and sells politicians of different stripes,” he said.

Whether or not to antagonize Trump, a hot-headed, unpredictable celebrity-politician, has been a key question for each candidate as they prepared for Thursday. Clearly, Paul decided he had little to lose and that angling with Trump might win him some attention -- a scarce commodity in this race.

Moderator Megyn Kelly also came ready. Her first question to the real estate mogul was about his past statements about women.

“You've called women fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she said, asking him to explain his language. Trump interjected that only used such words to describe actor Rosie O'Donnell.

Kelly didn't accept that answer and Trump was forced to answer the question.

“The big problem this country has is being politically correct. I'm being challenged by so many people and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness, and to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either,” he said.

On Planned Parenthood and abortion

Hillary Clinton's campaign hears something to its liking at the GOP debate

From her campaign:

Only Rosie O'Donnell.
A joking Donald Trump, on moderator Megyn Kelly's assertion that he's spoken poorly of women

Trump gets warm reception from crowd

Candidates take to the stage: Let's go

Benghazi, Trump's hair and Washington outsiders: It's debate night bingo

The Times' graphics team has put together your key viewing accessory: a bingo card of likely debate moments. Print it out or play along online:

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A final breather before the debate

Jose Antonio Vargas: Hey, GOP, what exactly do you want with us?

Over on our op-ed pages, columnist Jose Antonio Vargas poses the questions he'd like to ask at the GOP debate.

"As a journalist who also happens to be an undocumented immigrant, I’d like to know what a Trump presidency would mean for me, and for people like me," Vargas writes.

"Trump says that, if elected, he would deport all undocumented immigrants and then allow the “good ones” to come back. But how does he plan to find, round up and deport all of us? How would that work? And who are the “good ones”?

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Campaigns are now purveyors of tortilla chips and polo shirts

Forget formal ties and elephant mugs. This election season, if you're a Republican enthusiast deciding how to dole out money in support of your favorite candidate, this year's choices may leave you salivating (except perhaps for the price tags). Republican candidates for the presidential ticket have upped the ante with some nonconventional merchandise catering to stomachs and pun lovers.

Relax and watch the debates with a bag of tortilla chips and guacamole in Jeb Bush's “Guaca Bowle” -- a sturdy salsa dish.

Marco? Polo. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio puts the polo to the Marco with a set of cotton polo shirts.

Ahead of tonight's prime-time Republican debate, The Times' Adam Tschorn delves into the most memorable memorabilia:

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Fiorina draws praise for her performance in the early GOP forum, but her failed Senate bid still haunts

 (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Carly Fiorina almost didn't make it on stage -- her polling numbers hovered south of the 1% bar initially set by host Fox News.

But once she did, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive made the most of it.

Pundits quickly declared Fiorina a stand out in the forum for second-tier Republican candidates on Thursday evening, praising her confidence, clarity and willingness to go after both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump.

Fiorina even seemed to draw praise from her rival on stage, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"I would a whole lot rather had Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiation than John Kerry," Perry said of the Iran nuclear negotiations. "Maybe we would've gotten a deal where we didn't give everything away."

Fiorina's has been a sleeper campaign. She's consistently struggled to win attention in a crowded field where far better-known candidates have been boxed out of the spotlight.

But for those paying close attention, she's impressed and exceeded expectations. She's focused narrowly on Clinton and argued that, as the only woman in the Republican race, she's well-positioned to compete for coveted female voters.

"If Hillary Clinton faces a woman opponent," Fiorina said earlier this year, "she will get a hitch in her swing."

Fiorina, however, avoids mentioning on the campaign trail her own ties to the Clinton family's foundation.

Still, the candidates' forum seems to be her zone. In early July, The Times' Seema Mehta noted some Fiorina buzz.

"At a multi-candidate forum in Nashua, N.H., earlier this year, Republican activists who couldn't pronounce Fiorina's last name before her speech buzzed about her in the hallways afterward. Hundreds groaned in disappointment at an Iowa Republican fundraiser in May when Fiorina's mic was cut after she ran past her 10-minute allotment.”

Fiorina's moment, of course, immediately came with scrutiny and a revival of the criticism that dogged her failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Democrats cast her a corporate raider, not the master negotiator she claims.

"Here's Carly Fiorina's foreign policy record: an affinity for sending American jobs overseas," Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said in a statement Thursday.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the candidate who praised Carly Fiorina's diplomatic skills. It was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, not former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Planned Parenthood, a hot-button topic on the trail, largely unmentioned in early Republican debate

Two words absent for much of the "happy hour" GOP presidential forum: Planned Parenthood.

Issues surrounding the group have become campaign fodder among Republican presidential hopefuls since undercover videos were released showing Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the alleged sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

It wasn't until Rick Santorum was asked a question about same-sex marriage (at the 53-minute mark) when he pivoted to the group.

"These Planned Parenthood tapes, what they're showing are partial-birth abortions," said the former Pennsylvania senator, who is making his second run for the White House after a failed 2012 bid. "Abortions being done where the baby is being born first to preserve those organs, and then they crush the skull."

Planned Parenthood has stressed that the videos, recorded by the Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress, are heavily edited and that the organization did nothing illegal. The organization provides a variety of healthcare services, including cancer screenings, HIV tests and family counseling.

When later prompted by debate moderators, former New York Gov. George Pataki's abortion-rights position -- a liability in a GOP presidential primary -- came to the forefront.

After seeing the videos, would his position change?

"My heart has not changed because I've always been appalled by abortion," he said. But he added that Roe. vs. Wade, which protects a woman the right to choose, is settled law and that "we should not continue to change it."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose state has opened an investigation into Planned Parenthood, said the group better "hope" Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic candidate, is the next president.

"Because I guarantee you, under President Jindal, in January 2017, the Department of Justice and IRS and everyone else we can send from the federal government will be going into Planned Parenthood. ... Absolutely we need to defund Planned Parenthood."

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That big spike is for Lindsey Graham

Graham, the senator from South Carolina, gave a somber monologue during the early debate about his background that was a contrast to other candidates' sharper attacks on one another's policies. He spoke of his parents both dying while he was in his early 20s and his family's dependence on Social Security.

Carly Fiorina, the early forum winner?

Immigration groups ready to take on Donald Trump during the GOP debate

 (Alejandro Tamayo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

(Alejandro Tamayo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immigrant advocates are organizing their own viewing parties for tonight's debate, and they plan to hit back at Donald Trump - or, at least, piñatas in his likeness. The Times' Kate Linthicum has the details:

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Mystery solved

Roe v. Wade has been the law for 42 years, and I don't think we should continue to try and change it. But what we can do is defund Planned Parenthood.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, the only Republican running for president who supports abortion rights.

Oops, someone left their closing remarks in the hotel printer

Second-tier contenders don't hold back on Donald Trump

 (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

It took 11 minutes for the moderators to mention the "elephant not in the room" during the "undercard' debate of second-tier GOP candidates on Thursday, but once they did, the candidates didn't hold back much.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry quickly dissed GOP front-runner Donald Trump's previous support for single-payer healthcare and his "celebrity."

Former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina hit Trump on his relationship to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton and the news that Trump spoke with the former president by phone shortly before launching his White House bid, a revelation that's fed speculation that the real estate mogul is a Democratic plant.

"I didn't get a call from Bill Clinton, did you?" Fiorina asked.

Top-tier candidates have been grappling with whether to go after the GOP front-runner and famous bomb thrower directly during the prime-time debate later Thursday, when Trump will hold the center podium. Advisors to the candidates have said they're wary of engaging in an unpredictable and potentially ugly fight on live TV -- particularly just as they're trying to introduce themselves to Americans. It's might not be worth the risk.

The second-tier candidates, some of whom were hardly pulling 1% in national polls, had much less to lose.

"I talked about Donald Trump from the standpoint of being an individual who was using his celebrity rather than his conservatism," Perry said. "How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer [universal] healthcare? I mean, I ask that with all due respect."

Trump wasn't there to fight back.

Trump has arrived in Cleveland

Second tier gets a quick grilling

The undercard gets underway as the forum for the second-tier candidates begins

Though lacking the prime-time spotlight of the 2016 election's first GOP debate, seven presidential hopefuls lagging in national polls and craving attention hope an earlier candidate forum could provide a breakthrough moment to distinguish themselves in the crowded field.

If tonight's 10-candidate battle is the NCAA basketball tournament, the earlier forum could be the equivalent of the NIT - stocked with those not selected for the big dance. But even then, the rules don't allow for direct interaction between the second-tier candidates, just short statements that give the candidates a chance to test their message on a bigger stage. While 5,000 people will attend tonight's debate, the room will be empty for the earlier forum except for the moderators and candidates.

The candidates include some familiar names and some forgotten ones. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose much-hyped late entry to the 2012 contest fizzled in part because of a debate stumble, is one two-time candidate to miss the cut for the main stage. Then there's Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and winner of a handful of caucuses and primaries in the 2012 nomination fight, including Iowa.

The forum also features the GOP field's only female candidate, Carly Fiorina, who generated buzz early on in her run. And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the party's leading foreign policy voices, also is settling for the undercard, along with Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Govs. George Pataki of New York and Jim Gilmore of Virginia.

All aren't just polling in single digits - they're trailing the margins of error. The Real Clear Politics average of national polling put Perry at 1.8% of the vote, while some of the others don't even register.

A rundown of who's running

Looking for more about who's in the forum, the preamble to the main debate? Here's the Times' breakdown of who's running for president in 2016:

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To do before you leave work today

Print out the Times' handy Republican debate bingo card:

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Calling it a debate is a misnomer. This is a series of competing sound bites. The candidates will all come in with canned zingers and sound bites. That's the nature of the beast, and I think it's unfortunate.
Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party

What time is the Republican presidential debate?

Thursday night's Republican presidential candidate debate, the first of the 2016 election, is at 9 p.m. Eastern and 6 p.m. Pacific time.

A forum for candidates whose poll numbers were too weak to qualify for prime-time debate is earlier, at 5 p.m. Eastern and 2 p.m. Pacific.

Nikki Haley, a possible vice presidential pick, urges a civil Republican debate

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, considered a potential GOP vice presidential pick following her decisive action to take down the Confederate flag at her state Capitol, called on her party's White House hopefuls Thursday to be civil, substantive and passionate in the first Republican presidential debate Thursday night.

"Tell me how you're going to solve our problems," Haley told hundreds of Republican leaders gathered here for a national party meeting. "I actually think Mr. [Donald] Trump is going to realize his environment. I think he's going to stay calm up there, but I also hope that people show us their fight. There's a way to show fight and respect at the same time."

Haley was viewed as a rising Republican star when she was elected governor in 2010, but her luster faded amid battles with the Legislature. Her popularity in South Carolina increased as the economy improved, but the moment that pushed her into the national spotlight was the aftermath of the June mass shooting at a historic African American church in Charleston.

On Thursday, Haley described how the state was still healing from the killing of nine people, and said the nation and the party could learn from South Carolinians' actions in the aftermath of the massacre.

"We didn't have riots. We had vigils. We didn't have yelling. We had hugs and prayer," Haley said to applause. "It's easy to be divisive. It's courageous to put yourself in the other person's shoes."

"We as Republicans are perceived as hard and cold, and we know we're not. But how are we showing that?" Haley said. "The best way to show it is to listen."

Some smart talk before tonight's talkfest

The Times' Kurtis Lee joined MSNBC's "NewsNation" on Thursday to analyze the first Republican presidential debate.

Meanwhile, back at Clinton HQ

Hillary Rodham Clinton won't be on the GOP presidential debate stage Thursday night, but her campaign nonetheless sees it as an opportunity to gain some ground with voters -- and to get in some preseason practice against Republicans.

Clinton will be in California, participating in a round table on home care in Los Angeles and later attending fundraisers in both L.A. and San Francisco.

Across the country, her team has made the unusual move of inviting the press into its campaign headquarters in Brooklyn on Thursday night, where frenzied staffers will scramble to respond as Republicans attack her and each other, as well as offer policy agendas that are starkly different from the one taking shape in their office. The quick sausage-making of rapid response will be on full display at the "GOP Debate Filing Center" hosted by Hillary for America.

TV news crews have been advised there will be ample opportunity for live shots. The campaign previewed its theme for the night with a YouTube video playing off the “Throwback Thursday” social media trend to present a mash of clips of GOP candidates taking positions on issues including gay marriage, immigration and women's health that Democrats ridicule as outdated:

The embrace of the GOP debate suggests Clinton is confident it is going to be a good night for her. Even after attacks are relentlessly lobbed her way Thursday, she has the potential to emerge looking more bulletproof than battle-scarred as Americans watch GOP candidates desperately try to break out of the scrum while navigating the antics of Donald Trump.

The challenge for the campaign, oddly, may just be taking the focus off Trump. None of Clinton's advisors expect the New York billionaire to win the nomination, despite his current lead in the polls. They are eager to start inflicting damage on the candidate they do expect to be victorious: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Clinton has been working hard at it on the stump lately, signaling the arrival of the GOP debate has ushered in a new phase for her campaign.

After months of listening tours, cautious policy speeches and vows by the candidate that she was not going to trade personal barbs with Republicans, she has lately taken a much more aggressive posture. Most notably, she is openly mocking Bush's "Right to Rise" campaign slogan, something that started when the two appeared at the same event in Florida last week.

Said Clinton pollster Joel Benenson: "Gov. Bush has created a target-rich environment."

Who needs drinking games? Here's a menu of candidate-themed food for your debate viewing party

You've heard of wine pairings. How about a candidate pairing? Noelle Carter, director of the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen, has you covered on what to serve for a viewing party tonight. The main debate kicks off at 6 p.m. Pacific, just in time for an appetizer of grilled cheese a la Scott Walker and a side of Donald Trump booze. Other highlights from her list:

Chris Christie — pizza

Rand Paul — tea

Mike Huckabee — fried chicken

Ted Cruz — bacon

John Kasich — spaghetti

Democrats, led by Obama, are highlighting today's 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act ahead of the GOP debate

Tonight's Republican presidential debate falls on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act, a coincidence that the Democratic president is highlighting today.

In an afternoon videoconference from the White House, President Obama will celebrate the 1965 law, which cleared barriers blocking African Americans from exercising their right to vote.

Obama's Roosevelt Room celebration, also featuring Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, comes just hours before the panel of mostly white GOP hopefuls gather for their first debate.

Aides to the president aren't all that coy about the timing.

"Maybe there will be an opportunity for Republican candidates to discuss the importance of protecting the right of every eligible American to cast a vote, particularly in an election as consequential as the upcoming presidential election," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said as he announced the event.

The historic 1965 legislation is a point of contention in many red states, following a Supreme Court decision two years ago to do away with the act's requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination clear any changes to their voting laws with the federal government.

On Wednesday, a panel of federal appeals judges rendered an important interpretation of that decision, ruling that Texas' voter identification law violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against black and Latino voters.

Already, the issue is shaping up to be a flashpoint in the presidential election. After Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled her plans to increase minority access to the ballot box, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, defended his state's photo ID requirement for voters and said Clinton was "firmly out of touch" with mainstream America on the issue.

Rick Perry, another GOP hopeful, is the former Texas governor who signed the state's measure into law, requiring that voters present one of seven forms of approved identification in order to vote. (A license to carry a concealed weapon counts. A university student ID does not.)

He won't get the chance to defend that decision in tonight's prime-time debate, as he hasn't shown enough support in voter polls to appear on the panel and is relegated to an earlier forum with other lower-tier candidates.

Obama seems to hope Democrats take notice of tonight's debate, an unusual position for an opposition party.

"I'm calling on you to tune in, listen carefully to what the Republican candidates for president say," he wrote to Democrats this week. "Hold them accountable for trying to undo all of the hard work we've done to move this country forward."

For his part, Lewis has a powerful story to tell about voting rights. He shared it Thursday in a mass email that included a copy of this picture, showing voting rights activists clashing with Alabama state troopers in Selma in 1965 on what became known as Bloody Sunday:

 (Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

"We knew the dangers that lay ahead, but we marched anyway hoping to usher in a more fair society -- a place where every American would be able to freely exercise their constitutional right to vote, and each of us would have an equal voice in the democratic process," he wrote. "We knew that standing up for our rights could be a death warrant. But we felt it would be better to die than to live with injustice."

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law not long after the Selma marches.

"On this 50th anniversary, rather than pay tribute to the act's original passage, we must fight for its restoration," Lewis wrote, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), in an op-ed in today's Times.

Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I'm not done serving at Starbucks.
Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, on rumors he planned to run for president in an op-ed in The New York Times.

Top GOP official: Trump wants to run as Republican nominee, not third-party

Worried that a spurned Donald Trump would launch a third-party bid for the White House, a nightmare scenario for the GOP if someone else ends up as the Republican nominee?

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says he's not.

"I've had great conversations with Donald Trump. We actually talk pretty regularly, as I do with almost all the candidates," Priebus said on CNN's "New Day." "I think he wants to be the Republican nominee and he knows that if Hillary Clinton is going to get beat, or Joe Biden is going to get beat, they're going to get beat by a Republican."

That, speculates Priebus, is "where he's at."

For good measure, he heaped a little praise on Trump for his unvarnished style.

Americans are "tired of the veneer, of the plasticized politics," said Priebus. People, he said, "gravitate to that."

Don't forget about the Democrats

The Democrats seized the slow morning ahead of tonight's Republican debate to announce their own lineup:

Five things to watch in Thursday's first Republican primary debate

Trump, of course. Will he be combative or gregarious? Will he even try to talk policy or stick to his “terrific” slogans and hyberbole? “What will Trump do?” is the question of the night and there's no real telling till showtime. Trump has been dropping clues, or at least making promises. He tweeted that he wants to be nice. He's said he wants the tone to be civil. He acknowledged in a moment of near humility that he'll be out of his element, telling ABC News' "This Week" that he's "not a debater."

"These politicians - I always say, they're all talk, no action. They debate all the time. They go out and they debate every night. I don't debate," Trump said. "Maybe my whole life is a debate, in a way. ... We'll see what happens. Who knows?"

The Trump Effect. How do you work with "Who knows?" Very carefully. The nine other top-tier candidates on stage have been preparing for weeks for how to manage the Trump factor. Some may come ready to try to share the spotlight by tangling with Trump on some of his more unorthodox positions - his history of Democratic leanings, his description of Mexican immigrants as "rapists," his newly hot relationship with the Clintons. But some strategists suggest that's a risky proposition. More likely, particularly in this first debate, candidates will be practiced in the art of the pivot.

"If you engage with him, then you're giving him standing and rather than discussing your ideas, you're discussing his ideas," said David Winston, a GOP strategist who helped prepared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for primary debates four years ago. "These are serious people who have records of accomplishment and have clearly been successful at some level within their respective positions." If Trump says something outrageous, it may have to be addressed, but not for long, Winston said.

"What you have to do is use that statement to pivot into what you think the issues are that matter and the policy you think the country should pursue. It's a transition point to your idea."

Nobody's perfect. Trump aside, the cast of candidates have their own troubles to worry about. Jeb Bush was reminded just this week of how quickly disarming candor can turn to political disaster when he seemed to suggest the government spends too much money on women's health. He'll have to answer for that tonight, as well as the other comments in this genre. (See: Americans "need to work longer hours" and a "phase-out" for Medicare.)

Scott Walker will be working on looking more seasoned in foreign policy than he is. Marco Rubio has to show he's more than just vice presidential potential. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and hometown favorite Ohio Gov. John Kasich are no strangers to tough debates. As former Obama advisor David Axelrod tweeted this week: "All eyes [will] be on @realDonaldTrump. But watch guys on either end of the stage. @ChrisChristie and @JohnKasich are tough, savvy debaters."

Who's in charge here? Will Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly keep control of the conversation? The three Fox News moderators are under more intense pressure than usual to keep the debate from being hijacked by one personality. As Wallace said Tuesday night, "We don't want to make it the Donald Trump show, but it is."

And another challenge awaits: 10 candidates, 90 minutes. "The biggest challenge is not for any of the 10 candidates, but for the moderators of the debate trying to keep things on track," said Steve Duprey, an RNC national committee member from New Hampshire and chairman of the debate committee. "I think the challenge tomorrow night ... is because there's going to be more ebb and flow, trying to keep candidates to respond within the set time limits, not seem like you're cutting them off mid-sentence."

The audience. Fox News is partnering with Facebook to add other voices to the room. But some of the voices that made the most impact in last cycle's primary debates came unexpectedly from the people in the seats. Four years ago, a series of cheers and jeers from the audience created memorable, if awkward, moments: A question from a gay soldier was booed. Another heckler seemed to endorse letting a man without health insurance die. The audience once applauded the number of people put to death in Texas. Has there been a major political event lately that hasn't been interrupted by immigration protesters? The audience will be asked to keep it down, but that's never a guarantee.

How to get out of Donald Trump's big shadow

 (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

"You're not there to try and outshine the showman," an advisor to one Republican candidate tells Seema Mehta and Lisa Mascaro ahead of Thursday's first Republican primary debate. "You're there to convince the American people you can lead the country."

Read more

Wednesday's Trail Guide highlights

Your Trail Guide was busy yesterday. If you were too, here's what you missed:

> Marco Rubio and other candidates lightened up before the high-pressure debate tomorrow

> Hillary Rodham Clinton was hyping the debate, hoping the slugfest will hurt the GOP

> But Donald Trump claimed he wants a civil tone on stage

> A volley between Clinton and Jeb Bush over women's healthcare was a lesson in the speed of modern campaigning

> The Washington Post reported the FBI is looking into the security of Clinton's private email server

> President Obama, in a speech at American University, accused critics of his Iran nuclear deal of war-mongering

O'Malley: Dems are protecting Clinton by limiting debates

 (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

As Republicans prepare for their first debate of the 2016 presidential election campaign, one long-shot Democratic hopeful is wondering why his party isn't doing the same.

The Democratic National Committee in May said it would sanction six debates, starting in the fall. Four would be held in each of the first nominating states. A final schedule, though, has yet to be announced.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley at the time called for more than six debates, a request he revived in sharper terms during a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday.

"I want to say right off the bat here that to those in Washington who think they can limit the number of debates that we're going to have before the Iowa caucuses — I think they're going to have another thing coming when they talk to the people of Iowa,” he said. “These are the issues about which we need to have not just one debate, not just two, but many debates.”

He went further in an interview with the Hill, accusing “insiders” of conspiring to limit debates in order to protect candiate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“If they could actually accelerate the date of the Iowa caucuses and hold them tomorrow, they'd like to do that. Then there'd be no campaign at all. That's what they'd really like,” he said.

“President and Secretary Clinton are the most colossal, prolific fundraising couple in the history of representative democracies,” he continued, prompting an aide to remind the candidate that he was speaking on the record. “I know. So, yes -- lots of people have long histories with the Clintons.”

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the party was still finalizing the details of its debate schedule, including broadcast and organizational sponsors, but would be announcing the schedule “very soon.”

A spokeswoman for the DNC said Wednesday in response to O'Malley's criticism that the committee was “thrilled” that O'Malley was eager to participate in debates, while defending the current plans for just six officially sanctioned encounters.

“I'm sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters and that they will make the most out of every opportunity,” said spokeswoman Holly Shulman.

By the numbers

How does Clinton or Trump get to 270 electoral votes? Play with our map.

Third debate scorecard: Here's who's winning each round

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