Andrew Harnik/AP

Republican Debate Turns Spectacle and Leaves Trump on Top

The prime-time event produces fireworks and some surprises as second-tier candidates find ways to break through.

CLEVELAND—Donald Trump dominated the night, but the first prime-time Republican presidential debate of 2016 provided ample space for other contenders to make a mark on an uncomfortably crowded stage.

In fact, the first 90 seconds of Thursday's explosive main event were more entertaining than all 90 minutes of the earlier B-list debate that featured seven candidates who failed to qualify for the night-time show.

All eyes were on Trump coming in, and anyone who thought the real-estate mogul would take a softer tone on the debate stage than he has on the campaign trail was quickly disappointed. "We don't have time for tone," Trump said at one point. "We have to go out and get the job done."

After saying he might yet run as an independent—drawing boos from the audience and provoking an attack from Rand Paul—Trump was at the center of several surreal exchanges, including one in which moderator Megyn Kelly asked him about a history of misogynistic attacks on women.

"You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,'" Kelly began. Trump interrupted: "Only Rosie O'Donnell."

Several thousand spectators inside Quicken Loans Arena roared as he dismissed her, and it was clear, less than 10 minutes into the event, that all rules and decorum governing typical presidential debates would not apply.

Other winners emerged: John Kasich capitalizing on the hometown crowd, Chris Christie emerging as a force on the big stage, and the three candidates perceived by many to be the likeliest eventual nominees—Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker—staying on message and ignoring the mayhem unfolding around them.

But the night was about Trump.

There was no shortage of opportunities to attack him, and the Fox News moderators—Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace—seemed intent on provoking such altercations. At one point, after Kasich refused to criticize Trump's comments about the Mexican border, Wallace said he hoped to "do better" with Rubio and teed up the same question for the Florida senator.

They pushed Trump and Bush to tangle directly when Bush declared, "Mr. Trump's language is divisive."

"I want to win," Bush said. "We're going to win when we unite people with a hopeful optimistic message."

Even when he wasn't attacking or being attacked, Trump, with his relaxed demeanor and from-the-hip style, produced many of the debate's most memorable moments.

When he was quizzed repeatedly on his past support of Democratic causes and politicians, Trump explained nonchalantly that he was essentially manipulating politicians to do what he wanted. He also defended his past giving to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Asked what he got for his money, Trump said, "With Hillary Clinton, I said, 'Be at my wedding,' and she came to my wedding."

Trump explained his past support for a single-payer health care system by saying, "It works in Canada."

Paul tried to jump on Trump for that remark, but he was cut off. "I don't think you heard me," Trump retorted. "You're having a hard time tonight."

The most heated exchange of the night, however, did not include Trump. It came when Paul and Christie went head-to-head on the tension between civil liberties and national security. It was clear that both men, who were perched at the stage's edges after fading from the top tier in the polls, relished the chance to do battle on the big stage.

"I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans," Paul declared.

"That's a completely ridiculous answer," Christie jumped in. "How are you supposed to know?"

"Use the Fourth Amendment! Use the Fourth Amendment!" Paul shouted, as they spoke over one another. "Get a warrant!"

Then Christie unleashed one of the night's most memorable lines: "Listen, Senator, you know, when you're sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that."

Indeed, Paul often found himself outnumbered in policy disputes. But he consistently asserted his voice on stage—which is more than could be said for Huckabee or Ben Carson, both of whom disappeared for long stretches of the debate and did not enjoy any memorable moments. When Carson got only his second question, nearly 45 minutes into the debate, he joked, "Thank you Megyn, I wasn't sure I was going to get to talk again."

Cruz, the much-touted collegiate champion debater, was similarly absent, scoring few notable blows for his anti-Washington message.

Bush and Rubio were confident and detailed in their responses. One of Bush's better moments was a response to questioning about his support for Common Core, and he earned sustained applause when arguing for high standards.

At one point, Wallace pitted them against each other, asking Rubio whether he could make a better president than Bush despite no executive experience.

Rubio deflected and launched one of the sharpest attacks on Clinton. "This election cannot be a résumé competition. It's important to be qualified, but if this election is a résumé competition, then Hillary Clinton's gonna be the next president, because she's been in office and in government longer than anybody else running here tonight," he said.

Rubio repeated his thematic line about 2016 being "about the future," then added: "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—how is she gonna lecture me—how is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago."

Another big winner Thursday night was Kasich, who was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation at the beginning of the debate and enjoyed what Wallace called "a home-field advantage" throughout. Kasich on several occasions appeared to be shadowing Bush, touting reforms made in Ohio that elevated people from poverty. Kasich also dealt effectively with a tough question on opposing gay marriage by declaring he'd recently attended a gay wedding and would support his children if they are gay, earning enthusiastic cheers from the hometown audience.

But in many ways, the night ultimately belonged to Trump. Despite some early provocations and statements that drew scattered boos, the billionaire businessman did not commit any serious errors. He was forceful with his answers and was consistently rewarded by the crowd for his spontaneous one-liners attacking Washington and career politicians. He even received some validation from his rival candidates.

"Here is the thing about Donald Trump. Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country," Kasich said. "People are frustrated. They're fed up. They don't think the government is working for them. And for people who want to just tune him out, they're making a mistake."