ABC News Online

By John Barron

Presidential candidate debates can be dull affairs.

Two hours of duelling talking points from wooden candidates who keep dipping into their stump speeches for sound bites on any given topic.

But the first Republican debate in Cleveland, Ohio today was anything but dull.

In the build-up to the debate it seemed like pundits were expecting frontrunner Donald Trump to come out on stage wearing a red rubber nose and riding a unicycle.

But while Mr Trump was literally centre stage, and a good portion of the early debate circled around and through him, happily it was not all about The Donald.

Four years ago, Republican candidates were asked to raise their hands if they were so anti-tax they would walk away from a deficit reduction deal that had $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Every one of the candidates raised their hand.

Today at the 'Q Arena', the first question asked candidates to raise their hand if they could not rule out running as an independent 'third party' candidate if they failed to with the Republican nomination.

Only Donald Trump raised his hand — to boos from the crowd. It set the scene for a consistent line of questions that followed from the panel of Fox News moderators all with the subtext — "You aren't really a Republican, are you?"

It may prove the beginning of the end of the Trump ascendency among conservative voters.

What — he was FOR abortion? He was FOR single-payer universal healthcare? He gave MONEY to Bill and Hillary Clinton?

Not only would Trump not rule out an independent campaign that could very well hand Hillary Clinton the White House, but the effect of the TV cameras cutting from serious candidate with records as senators or governors back to Trump was like seeing comedian Stephen Colbert suddenly appear on screen.

Surely this guy Trump is a brilliant satirist, he is sending up the process and the people in it by being a fatuous caricature of a candidate.

We will see what voters made of it in polls over the next few days, but focus groups convened by Fox gave Trump some very low marks.

The other candidates all had reasonable nights and probably mostly achieved what they needed to.

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Jeb Bush seemed serious, well-prepared and competent, but was so low in the charisma stakes one can understand why even the 'Automaton-2012' candidate Mitt Romney thinks he could have beaten the third Bush to run for the White House.

Jeb seemed to be saying: "Wake me up when I'm president."

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker spoke in short, sharp answers — so short that it seemed like he did not actually have much to say at times.

He ducked out of a question on police racism that made him look like he had little compassion for victims of cop shootings.

Walker did have one zinger though, when asked about cyber espionage against the US he replied that Russia probably knows more about Hillary Clinton's emails than the American people do.

Texas senator Ted Cruz was polished, strong on foreign affairs, and effective in his criticisms of the Obama–Clinton policy of "leading from behind".

But Mr Cruz also tended to look smug and show-offy proving he knew the names of lots of Iranian officials. No wonder he is about as popular as ISIS on Capitol Hill.

The one-time poster boy of Republicans, governor Chris Christie of New Jersey may have just been able to remind voters why they fell in love with him in the first place.

He has significant everyman charm, pity about the reputation for being both a bully and a hugger of Barack Obama. And a snarky reminder of that 2012 embrace after Hurricane Sandy was enough to shut him down.

Libertarian senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was like a miniature poodle, scrapping with Christie and yapping about the constitution.

He injected himself into the debate early on — unbidden and sometimes ignored. But he has clearly learned from his father Ron Paul, who ran in 2008 and 2012, if you do not pipe up, you will get lost in the crowd.

Local hero and Ohio governor John Kasich had a home crowd advantage, appeared strong at times but also drew louder applause than he probably deserved.

He won cheers for saying he had recently attended a gay wedding — showing how much the Republican party and America has changed in just a few years, but then baulked at using the word "lesbian" in relation to his daughter — showing how far there is to go.

The other non-politician in the race, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, struggled at times on questions of foreign policy but exuded intelligence, calm and a homespun, god-fearing folksiness at others.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was ready with a quip but looked oddly off-the-ball for much of the night — still trying to push his flat 30 per cent 'Fairtax' policy from 2008.

But he did get in the line of the night when he seemed to be mounting a brutal attack on Trump, which turned out to be a hit on Hillary instead.

Perhaps the candidate who gained the most from this first of nine GOP debates was Florida senator Marco Rubio.

He was fresh, confident and positive. Rubio, with his Cuban heritage and appeal to both establishment and Tea Party republicans, may still look like he is a few years from being commander-in-chief, but would have to be on the shortlist of all Republicans to be their vice presidential running mate.

And then there is Donald Trump. If Republicans are smart they will now show him the door.

The only thing Trump really believes in is Trump.

The GOP has at least three or four credentialed and credible potential presidents in their field of seventeen, Mr Trump is certainly not one of them.

This article was originally published at ABC News Online