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Highlights From the First Republican Debate Night

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The New Republic's top debate stories:

"The Republican Party Can't Escape Its Past" — Brian Beutler

"Pro Wrestling Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know About the GOP Debate" — Elspeth Reeve

"Donald Trump Captures the Hearts of Young Republicans" — Suzy Khimm

"Barack Obama Wanted You to Watch the Debate. Hillary Clinton Didn't" — Rebecca Leber

"Christian Republicans Can't Agree on Who Deserves Our Government's Compassion" — Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

The top ten Republican presidential candidates met in Cleveland, Ohio's Quicken Loans Arena for the party's first primary debate on Thursday night. Any worries that frontrunner Donald Trump would play it safe were immediately dispelled: The event may as well have been called "The Donald Trump Show." But several contenders managed to make headlines, too. Here are the key moments—and for all of the highlights, visit our live blog.

Trump Won't Promise Not to Run as an Independent

In the very first question of the night, Bret Baier asked the debaters for a show of hands from anyone who refused to pledge not to run as an independent against the eventual Republican nominee; a third-party candidate might split the conservative vote and hand the election to Clinton, said Baier. Only one candidate raised his hand.

Granted, Trump didn't say he wants to run independently; he just really wants to be president. But his response to question immediately made clear that in this debate, as on the campaign trail, he would be the belligerent center of attention. Despite audible boos in the arena, Trump fans were giddy with excitement:  

The media had a slightly different reaction:

Trump Is Terrible to Women

Host Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his previous insults of women. "You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." Trump cut her off to say "Only Rosie O'Donnell."

Rosie was not amused.

Trump went on to lecture about how political correctness is our country's greatest problem, and ended by saying that at least he hasn't been as mean to Kelly as she maybe deserves. 

There was applause from the audience. When the New Republic's Elspeth Reeve talked to Trump supporters last month, "many said this was the one thing they loved most about Trump, that he's not afraid to offend (people they don't like)." As Jeet Heer noted in the New Republic live blog, "He's not answering the questions, he's being rude. But the audience is eating it up." 

Rand Paul and Chris Christie Fight Over the Fourth Amendment

Chris Christie had just answered a question about how he would use NSA surveillance to prevent terrorism—invoking September 11 and emphasizing his personal experience with the Patriot Act—when Rand Paul responded with a lecture on the Founding Fathers. 

"The Fourth Amendement is what we fought the Revolution over. John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence and I'm proud of standing for the Bill of Rights," said Paul.

By the time Christie was able to respond, the conversation had devolved into a discussion of hugs: Christie hugged Obama, so he hates privacy. But he also hugged the families of September 11 victims, so he loves America.

Reeve noted that "Rand Paul has been accused of having a temper in the past—he once shushed a reporter—and it's coming out in the debate, maybe fueled by the amped up crowd, maybe inspired by the reaction to Trump."

Mike Huckabee Says Pimps and Prostitutes Should Pay for Social Security

A boring question on Social Security turned into a rant from Mike Huckabee: 

Huckabee's plan to transform Social Security would restructure taxes so that everybody—including "illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, all the people who are freeloading off the system now"—would be contributing. 

This isn't the first time Huckabee has talked about pimps. In January he accused Jay-Z of being a pimp for exploiting his wife Beyonce. 

Kasich is Against Gay Marriage, Still Unconditionally Loves Gay People

When asked about gay marriage John Kasich perfectly skirted the party line while appealing to the majority of Americans who support gay marriage. 

"I'm an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage," said Kasich. "The court has ruled and I said we'll accept it ... because somebody doesn't think the way I do doesn't mean I can't care about them and can't love them. If one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and accept them."

The answer went over well among liberals and conservatives alike.

"In a night of clowning, buffoonery and ideological absurdity, John Kasich deserves an award as the candidate most resembling a human," wrote Heer in our live blog. "His answer on gay marriage was quite touching. Not sure this will help him at all with voters."

The seven Republican candidates who didn't make the cut for Fox News' prime-time debate gathered earlier on Thursday for what some commentators derisively called the “kiddie table.” Indeed, "electability" was the topic of the first round of questions, which boiled down to: Why on Earth do you think you have a chance of winning the Republican nomination? Here are the key moments.

Graham: I Have a "Simple" Plan for Defeating the Islamic State

Lindsey Graham went out of his way to demonstrate his foreign policy bona fides by claiming he has a "simple strategy" to defeat ISIS.

"If you're running for president of the United States and you don't understand that we need more American ground forces in Iraq ... you're not serious about destroying ISIL," said Graham. "I've got a very simple strategy as your president against ISIL. Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat them." 

His campaign was so proud that they tweeted the quote immediately:

Catchy, but maybe "simple" isn't what you want when it comes to foreign policy.

Rick Perry Makes Another Meme-Worthy Gaffe 

This is less a highlight than a lowlight. According to Perry, immigration has been a problem ever since someone named "Ronald Raven" gave amnesty to four million people without actually securing the border.

It doesn't appear as disastrous as his 2012 debate gaffe, when he forgot the name of the third federal agency that he wanted to shutter, and at least he had the good sense this time not to say "oops." But Twitter had fun with it anyways.

Perry did redeem himself somewhat at the end of the debate. Asked to describe Hillary Clinton in two words, Perry proposed three words instead—and remembered all of them.

Will Carly Fiorina be Promoted?

Resplendent in pink, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina seems to have won the “kiddie table” debate. "On Fox, the consensus is Carly won," Elspeth Reeve wrote on the New Republic live blog. "In a panel of pundits, Brit Hume says Fiorina clearly dominated. Juan Williams argues she seemed ready for the presidency, while the rest did not. ... Fox contributors Katie Pavlich and Jedidiah Bila agree. Todd Starnes says she was 'looking and behaving very presidential.'"

Google data supports the notion that Fiorina won. Searches for her name surged over the course of the debate, and by the end she had even surpassed the candidate who will be front and center at Thursday's prime-time debate: Donald Trump.

The post has been updated.