The first challenge this week was just getting into the debate.

The challenge Thursday night was standing out.

In a crowded field and on a cramped stage, Republican presidential candidates tried to make memorable moments and favorable first impressions during a presidential primary debate at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Donald Trump, who has vaulted to the top of the polls thanks to controversial remarks on illegal immigration, grabbed the spotlight early. He even mentioned Atlantic City.

Questioned about his companies’ bankruptcies, Trump said he “had the good sense” to get out of Atlantic City before it suffered financial trouble.

“I left Atlantic City before it cratered,” Trump said.

The debate’s first question asked candidates to raise their hands if they couldn’t pledge to rule out a third-party run. Trump was the only one to raise his hand.

“I will not make that pledge at this time,” Trump said, to a mix of cheers and boos.

Four questions later, Trump was asked about offensive remarks he’s made on Twitter women.

“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump quipped, before later stating: “The biggest problem in this country has is being politically correct.”

Trump later called U.S. leaders “stupid” when talking about how they deal with illegal immigration from Mexico.

Christie, who sneaked into the debate as the ninth-highest nationally polled candidate, had to defend his record as governor early.

Asked about New Jersey’s shaky economy, including nine credit downgrades and issues funding public pensions, Christie said his state had zero net private sector job growth in the eight years before he took office. Since then, he said, 192,000 new private-sector jobs have been created in the state.

“If you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it when I got there,” Christie said.

Christie later traded barbs with Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul on balancing civil liberties and national security when collecting citizens’ telephone and computer data.

Christie said he was the only person on the stage who “prosecuted and jailed terrorists after 9/11” as New Jersey’s U.S. District Attorney.

Paul responded by saying “The Fourth Amendment is what we fought a revolution over.”

Christie called Paul’s response “a ridiculous answer” and said later Paul was “blowing hot air.”

Paul then attacked Christie for giving “a big hug” to President Barack Obama.

Christie was later asked about entitlement reform, specifically if former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was lying when he said the entitlement problem can be fixed without raising the retirement age for Social Security.

“No he’s not lying, he’s just wrong,” Christie said.

Christie said he was the only one on the stage who has put out a detailed plan on the issue. He said part of his plan would raise the retirement age by two years after 25 years.

The debate, presented by Fox News and Facebook, included the top 10 nationally polled Republican candidates. The rest of the field included former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The debate did not end in time for The Press’ print deadline.

Bush was asked early about being part of a family dynasty, with his father and brother both serving as president, and how voters may be reluctant to elect another Bush.

“I’m gonna have to earn this,” Bush said. “Maybe the bar is higher for me. That’s fine.”

Rubio, a freshman senator, was questioned on his lack of executive experience, compared to fellow Floridia politician, Bush. Rubio said he isn’t new to the political process.

“This cannot be a resume competition,” Rubio said. “If so, Hillary Clinton will be the next president.”

Cruz, addressing criticism that he hurts his own party, said, “I believe the American people are looking for someone to speak the truth.”

Thursday’s debate was the first of six party-sanctioned forums scheduled before primary voting begins in February. The Republican Party’s next debate will be Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Contact: 609-272-7215

Twitter @_Hetrick

Never miss breaking news as it happens! Sign up now to receive alerts delivered to your inbox.

Recommended for you

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.