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Republican Candidates Square Off In First Presidential Debate

CLEVELAND (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A combative Donald Trump, the U.S. billionaire businessman-turned-presidential candidate, jolted the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign with his brash, confrontational comments, but the event also served as a reminder that 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 Thursday night, "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 frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton would win, giving her party a third straight term in in the White House.

During the two-hour session Trump put to rest speculation that 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 that he has no time for political correctness, and said he had done nothing but use 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."

Through the remainder of the debate, the candidates made little news, choosing instead to use their time to repeat already well-known positions. Only 10 of 17 Republican candidates were invited to participate in the main event, with the remaining seven relegated to a pre-debate forum.

Fifteen months from the election, Trump remains a longshot candidate to replace President Barack Obama. 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.

For some watching the debate at the Playwright Restaurant & Pub on W. 35th Street, it was like "Donald and the Nine Dwarfs," 1010 WINS' John Montone reported.

Republican Candidates Square Off In First Presidential Debate

"I think a lot of people were expecting him to make a fool out of himself, but he came to play," one man said.

"I think he's the most brilliant entertainer of the early 21st Century, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this debate exclusively because of him," a woman said.

But one Republican told 1010 WINS he's concerned that Trump doesn't have any ethics.

But, would Trump face a gender gap at the polls?

"I do have respect for the man,"Luba Slojka told CBS2's Dick Brennan.

"I'm a Republican and he won't get my vote," Valerie Wallace said, " I think he's too outspoken."

In Westchester it wasn't hard to get an opinion about Trump.

"I kinda like him because he speaks his mind and he takes care of business," Elaine Appollo said.

"I think most think he is a good businessman. I have my doubts about him," Liz Pollack said.

Thursday night, was Trump's turn to feel the heat as he faced tough questions.

He got some laughs about a crack that he made about Rose O'Donnell, but she didn't find it funny.

Trump was asked what he would say if Democrats charge that he is part of the so called 'war on women.'

"I think the big problem that this country has is being politically correct. I've been 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 replied.

There were voters who felt the response made sense.

"The others seemed rehearsed, not him," Sabrina Russo said.

Some instant polls declared him the clear loser in the debate, others had him at the top. Trump praised himself for what he called a 'great performance.'

"I am not a debater, but I am a winner," he said.

Standing to Trump's left on the debate stage Thursday night was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a favorite of the wealthy donors and business leaders that populate the establishment wing of the Republican Party. But Bush, the son and brother of two former U.S. presidents, has struggled to separate himself from the rest of the field and he faces questions about whether his nomination would mark a return to the past.

"I'm going to have to earn this," Bush said.

Immigration and counterterrorism dominated the early stages of the debate, two issues that highlight the deep divisions within the Republican Party.

Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, defended his call for a path to legal status for some of the people living in the U.S. illegally. It's an unpopular position among some Republican voters who equate legal status with amnesty.

"The great majority of people coming here have no other option," Bush said.

Trump in particular has pushed the issue of immigration throughout the summer. He said Thursday border patrol agents agreed with his comments about Mexicans, and he took credit for immigration being an issue in the 2016 campaign.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is fighting to pull himself up by the bootstraps in the crowded Republican field, engaged in a heated and personal exchange with Paul over anti-terrorism measures and laws giving government access to Americans' phone records, CBS2's Marcia Kramer reported.

Paul, a staunch opponent of the surveillance programs, said he wanted to collect more records from terrorists, not law-abiding Americans.

"I don't trust President Obama with our records, I know you gave him a big hug and if you want to give him a big hug again go right ahead," Paul told Christie, who responded, "Hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on Sept. 11."

To Trump's right was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose victories over labor unions in his home state created his national profile. He broke no new ground in the debate.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the youngest candidate in the field at age 44, was trying to carve out a niche as a foreign policy expert, but has struggled to break through this summer -- particularly since Trump's surge. He turned in a strong performance, talking powerfully about the need for a leader who understands the challenges of the new economy taking shape in America.

Less than 24 hours after the debate, analysis is pouring in on the candidates.

"To me, there were very few standout performance," said Ruth Sherman.

Sherman, a CEO and celebrity speech coach, told CBS2's Andrea Grymes she thought Kasich and Rubio did the best in the prime-time event.

"If I'm our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck," Rubio said to cheers from the crowd.

While the candidates pitched their visions for the Republican Party's future, they also were making the case that they would present the strongest general election challenge Clinton.

But overall, Sherman said it was Carly Fiorina, featured in the pre-debate forum, who really broke out from the pack.

"Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi, she lies about emails, she is still defending Planned Parenthood and she is still her party's front-runner," Fiorina said.

"She was straightforward. She showed leadership. She showed passion. She showed deep knowledge," said Sherman.

Five other Republican Party-sanctioned debates are scheduled before primary voting begins in February.

The Democratic National Committee meanwhile announced that the first of its series of six debates will be held Oct. 13 in Nevada.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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