GOP presidential candidates square off in heated debate

FOX News -- Donald Trump was the unrivaled lightning rod at Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, but the prime-time showdown made clear he’s not the only fighter on the stage – or in the race.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reclaimed his reputation as a tough-talking executive, blasting his rivals for their positions on domestic surveillance and entitlements. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul traded barbs with several candidates, including Christie.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, among others, also scored their moments. Meanwhile, one-time front-runner former Gov. Jeb Bush found himself on defense several times and largely avoided tangling with Trump on the Fox News/Facebook stage.  

Perhaps the most fiery moment, though, came in an exchange between Christie and Paul mid-way through. Long-simmering tension between the two exploded when Christie stood by his criticism of the senator for opposing NSA bulk collection of American phone data.

Paul said he’s “proud of standing for the Bill of Rights,” but Christie called his stance “completely ridiculous” – suggesting he wants to cherry-pick only some data.   

“When you’re sitting in the subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie said.

Paul fired back: “I know you gave [President Obama] a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go ahead.” Christie said the hugs he gave were to the families of 9/11 victims, and then accused Paul of playing “politics,” by using videos of floor speeches to raise money.

The exchange was striking, even for a debate that was tense from the start. Time and again, Trump was at the center of the tussles, with fellow candidates and the moderators. Though several rivals stood out, Trump did not hold his fire – making clear he’s not softening his approach to campaigning as he picks up steam in the polls.

The billionaire businessman front-runner sparred immediately with Paul after refusing to pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee if it’s not him and to swear off an independent run.

“I will not make the pledge at this time,” Trump said.  

Paul accused him of “hedging his bet on the Clintons.”

“He’s already hedging his bets, because he’s used to buying politicians,” Paul said.

Trump later stood firm on his vow to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration,” Trump said, blasting “stupid leaders” in the U.S. harboring illegal immigrants.

Bush said a comprehensive solution is needed, including a “path to earned legal status,” which he said is not “amnesty.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, though, moments later said some on stage support “amnesty” and he does not.

A big question going into the debate was whether Bush would aggressively challenge Trump and try to knock him off his perch.

But he would only go so far as to question Trump’s tone, calling his language “divisive.” Hours before the debate, Politico ran a story saying Bush recently told a donor he thinks Trump is a “buffoon” and a “clown.” Asked about that report on stage, Bush denied it.

“It’s not true,” Bush said.

Trump then called Bush a “true gentleman.”

As for his tone, Trump said it’s “medieval times” in the Middle East, and “We don’t have time for tone.”

But other candidates were able to stand out on the 10-man stage. Carson called Hillary Clinton the “epitome” of the progressive movement.

“She counts on the fact that people are uninformed. The Alinsky model, taking advantage of useful idiots,” he said.

Walker also blasted the Iran nuclear deal, as did other candidates: “This is not just bad with Iran, this is bad with ISIS, it is tied together and once and for all we need a leader who is going to do something about it. It is yet another example of the failed foreign policy of the Obama-Clinton doctrine.”

Also, under questioning from moderator Megyn Kelly about past disparaging comments he made about women, Trump interrupted to say, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” He then said, “Honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry.”

The sparks flew at the second of two kick-off debates, hosted by Fox News and Facebook in conjunction with the Ohio Republican Party.

While the seven other Republican hopefuls spent much of the first debate doing their best to hammer home the message that Clinton represents four more years of President Obama -- they also didn't have billionaire Trump on stage to contend with. In the earlier debate, the candidates largely avoided the “elephant not in the room,” and instead trained their fire on the Obama years -- with promises to roll back ObamaCare and undo the Iran nuclear deal.

In prime-time, many of the leading GOP candidates were eager to knock front-runner Trump off his perch. With 17 total candidates on the field, the Cleveland showdown could start to winnow the contenders from the also-rans.

Trump’s surge has been the surprise of the early primary season. He’s gone from bomb-throwing reality TV star and businessman to a genuine political force. He weathered a string of controversies over remarks – on illegal immigrants, on Sen. John McCain’s war record – despite pundit predictions that they’d spell his political demise.

Also on stage were Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.