Donald Trump survived his first presidential debate on Thursday without losing his temper or committing a gaffe that might drive him from the race for the Republican nomination.
But will GOP voters accept a candidate who won’t promise to support the eventual nominee?
When all 10 candidates were asked by Fox News anchor Bret Baier if they would pledge not to run as an independent if they failed to gain the nomination, Trump was the only one to refuse.
“I want to run as the Republican nominee,” he said, but added: “I will not make the pledge at this time.”
That may not sit well with any GOP voters who fear that an independent Trump candidacy might draw votes away from the Republican candidate. But, then again, Trump’s presidential bid has defied all predictions so far.
As he pointed out, “I’m leading by quite a bit.”
That fact did not exempt him from criticism. When he refused to take the pledge, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky interjected: “He buys and sells politicians of all stripes.... So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton?”
In response to another question, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush repeated his own previous criticism of Trump: “I have said that Mr. Trump’s language is divisive,” he said. “We’re not going to win by doing what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do each and every day, dividing the country.”
Trump responded with what, for him, was mildness: “When you have people cutting Christians’ heads off,” he said, “we don’t have time for tone. We have to go out and get the job done.”
Inevitably, in a two-hour debate showcasing 10 candidates, there was little time for deep discussions of policy. Instead, this first debate may have served as a kind of speed-dating session for Republican voters who hadn’t tuned in before. It gave each candidate a chance to explain the rationale for his candidacy.
And each turned in a reasonably polished performance -- from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who promised that Republicans would “be the party of the future” if he were the nominee, to neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who (perhaps unintentionally) echoed a noted Obama speech in 2004, saying: “We are the United States of America, not the divided states.”
One surprise: Early debates in a presidential campaign often jump-start the process of weeding out weak candidates. Thursday’s preliminary debate -- the junior varsity event for candidates who didn’t make it into the top 10 names in the polls -- may perversely have done the opposite: added one more name to the list of people to watch.
Former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina cleanly bested the other also-rans with a fluent and self-assured performance.
She jabbed at both Trump and Bush, but managed not to sound mean-spirited.
“We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets in the ring,” she said in a remark that seemed aimed at Bush. “I am not a member of the political class. I am a conservative.”
As for Trump, she said, “I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” referring to the real estate mogul’s reported request to the former president for political advice. “Maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
Among those who were impressed: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “They should invite Carly Fiorina back for the [main] 9 pm debate,” he tweeted.
With support from less than 2% of Republican voters in recent polls, Fiorina -- who lost her sole previous run for office, the 2010 U.S. Senate race in California -- has a long way to go before she’d be considered a top-tier presidential contender. But she appears to have earned herself a second look from both voters and donors.