It was a debate unlike any other.
The GOP turned into the WWE—the first presidential contest that seemed to consciously imitate reality television. It was almost certainly the first presidential debate to include an explicit blowjob reference.
At the center of it all was The Donald.
Ten people were on the stage. Nine of them were running for president, with the man in the middle, the undisputed leader in the polls, still acting like an insult comic. While Trump didn’t dominate the debate as expected, he did his best to keep the substance to a minimum.
His performance was true to form—somehow both shocking and totally predictable. Early on, he botched a question from Megyn Kelly about his previous statements on women.
“You call women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals,’” Kelly said.
“That’s just Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump retorted, drawing whoops and cheers from the crowd.
Kelly continued, saying his comments were directed to women “well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.”
“You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a great picture to see her on her knees,” Kelly said. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of the man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
Trump defended those slurs by suggesting everyone else had just become too sensitive.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said.
Meanwhile, the nine other candidates—you know, the ones who might actually become the Republican nominee—achieved various degrees of adequacy.
Gov. Scott Walker was milquetoast; Sen. Marco Rubio shined. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush survived; Gov. John Kasich, benefiting greatly from the hometown crowd, seemed sane, sincere, serious, and—when it came to his answer on gay marriage, at least—kind.
A newcomer to the top tier, the Ohio governor had perhaps one of the most interesting and revealing moments of the debate. Pressed on his stance on same-sex marriage and how he would explain to one of his children his objection to it if one of them were gay, he said he had just attended the marriage of one of his gay friends. The remark was met by immediate and loud applause from attendees.
Kasich then put his attendance at the wedding in an explicitly religious context: He was old-fashioned, sure, but God had given him unconditional love, and that’s the same kind of love he would show his children.
Of course, not everyone had a big moment.
Some of the other candidates—Sen. Ted Cruz, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—showed up and were largely well-placed spectators, save for maybe a good one-liner or two.
Sen. Rand Paul came off as the heel—the arrogant one, too aggressive, the one you root against. Weirdly enough, this is a role Trump has actually played in a WWE match.
The Kentucky senator came into the debate hot and within minutes was trying to take on Trump.
Bret Baier, one of the three moderators of the debate, asked the candidates to raise their hand if they were unwilling to pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee.
When Trump’s orange-hued hand went up, Paul pounced.
“He’s already hedging his bets because he’s used to buying politicians!” the senator yelled.
Later, after Paul attacked Trump again during a conversation about a single payer health care system, Trump calmly said, “I don’t think you heard me. You are not having a good night.”
And for a guy so opposed to war, Paul was certainly was the most belligerent one on the stage.
During one heated exchange over government surveillance, Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie screamed over each other until the moderators, mercifully, intervened.
“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—” Paul spat.
Christie retorted, “You know, Senator Paul, you know the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people in September 11.”
Moving right along, Walker, an early favorite in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, may have had his strongest moment when he was questioned about cybersecurity, joking that China and Russia know more about Hillary Clinton’s email server than Congress does.
But at the end of the day, the Wisconsin governor was “aggressively normal,” as he described himself in his closing statement. Not bad, really, just... not great.
And not everyone came there to throw down. In fact, after the early joists and apart from Paul’s continued poking at Christie and Trump, it all became rather calm and—dare we say it—somehow serious.
Bush and Rubio kept it, in the oft-used words of the GOP frontrunner, “classy.”
While Rubio spoke about immigration, education, and abortion, he scored no significant hits against his opponents. Even as the moderators tried to pit him against fellow Floridian Bush, Rubio chose not to confront him and instead carefully criticized him on policy on issues like Common Core.
Both Rubio and Bush faced tough questions on their abortion records.
Kelly prodded Bush for serving on the board of the Bloomberg Family Foundation, which gives significant financial backing to Planned Parenthood.
Bush replied by laying out a laundry list of pro-life policy changes he’d implemented as Florida governor and said he had no idea the Bloomberg Foundation was sending any of that money to Planned Parenthood.
Rubio was asked about his support for legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exemptions for rape, incest, and concerns about the life of the mother. He dodged the rape and incest question when challenged by Kelly, who noted that Timothy Dolan, the Catholic cardinal of New York, has described such exemptions as a cop-out.
Some of Rubio’s strongest remarks came as he discussed his financial struggles and those of his parents.
The Florida Republican spoke passionately about his personal understanding of what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and to be burdened by student loans. He juxtaposed that background with the Clintons and their enormous wealth: He’s not Hillary, he’s you.
“[T]his 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,” Rubio said. “This election better be about the future, not the past. It better be about the issues our nation and the world is facing today, not simply the issues we once faced.”
It was a debate we’d never seen before; ridiculous at times, substantive at others, with a crowd that ate it all up like they were watching America’s Got Talent. And despite Paul’s bluster, Trump’s… Trump-ness, and the relative quietness of some of the other top-tier candidates, no one ended their run Thursday night.
And that’s good news. Because it means we might get to do it all again next month.
—Written by Jackie Kucinich, Betsy Woodruff, Olivia Nuzzi, Tim Mak, and Will Rahn