It was billed as The Donald Trump Show, and the Republican front-runner delivered. He mugged. He pouted. He projected outrage without being troubled by specificity or fact. When he got punched — and the moderators threw haymakers all night — he stuck out his chin and punched back.
Trump made it through the first Republican debate by avoiding the one mistake that could have seriously damaged his insurgent campaign: sounding like a professional politician. For that reason alone, he seemed to me the clear winner.I watched the debate at the House of Blues in downtown Cleveland with a crowd of true-believer conservatives at a viewing party sponsored by the American Conservative Union. It might not have been a representative sample of Republican primary voters, and I should note that there was an open bar. So my observations should not be confused with actual political science.

That said, it was fascinating that Trump got the loudest cheers, by far, from the beginning of the debate until about three-fourths of the way through, when either exhaustion or the bar began to take a toll and the crowd’s attention seemed to wander.

Anyone who thought the Fox News moderators might go easy on the GOP field, or at least its leader, was mistaken. Yet when Bret Baier maneuvered Trump into acknowledging that he might run in the general election as an independent, there were oohs and aahs — but no catcalls. When Megyn Kelly pressed him on the crude and hurtful things he has said about women, Trump’s shrug — “What I say is what I say” — got a laugh, and his attack on “political correctness” drew applause. When Chris Wallace burrowed in on his four corporate bankruptcies, Trump’s explanation that he was just playing by the rules went over just fine.

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