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Leading in polls, defiant Trump takes center stage in GOP debate

Only debator who won’t commit to backing Republican nominee

CLEVELAND — Donald Trump stood at center stage in a rollicking Republican presidential primary debate Thursday night and refused to rule out running as an independent if he fails to secure the party’s nomination, injecting another element of volatility into the race as the topsy-turvy campaign landed on prime-time television for the first time.

Trump, who has soaked up all the media attention in the race for weeks, remained combative and defiant as he was pressed by Fox News moderators on many of his controversial statements, including derogatory tweets about women and brash comments about illegal immigrants.

In a heated and unpredictable two-hour debate, the other nine candidates on stage tried to seize the reins from him and demonstrate that they have the fight and gravitas to serve as the next commander in chief.

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Trump, an experienced entertainer who has won notoriety by telling contestants “You’re fired!” and ridiculing his political rivals by calling them “terrible,” made his debate debut amid questions about his strategy: Would he attempt to develop a presidential aura before a broader audience, or continue with the bombast that has led him to the top of the polls?

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And it took no longer than three minutes into the debate before it took a raucous turn before a vocal and boisterous audience. Asked with a show of hands whether they would support the eventual nominee — and not run as an independent candidate — Trump was the only one to refuse to make the pledge.

It spurred boos from the crowd and criticism from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“He buys and sells politicians of all stripes,” Paul said, speaking out of turn. “He’s already hedging his bets!”

“Well I’ve given [Paul] plenty of money,” Trump responded.

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Several minutes later, Fox News co-moderator Megyn Kelly listed a series of objectionable comments that Trump has made against women — saying he’s called women he doesn’t like are “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals” — and asked whether he was part of the “war on women.”

“The big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump responded. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.”

“Oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding, we have a good time,” he added. “What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”

By virtue of his commanding position at the top of the polls, Trump was positioned at the center of the stage, between his two closest competitors, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

The debate marked a turning point in the presidential campaign, offering the candidates the broadest platform yet to begin trying to display their qualifications for the White House.

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Many Americans were tuning into the race for the first time, getting the chance to judge the candidates on style and demeanor and take stock of a historically large field — 10 men, including one African-American, and two Cuban-Americans — who represent the best, at least according to the latest polls, the Republican Party has to offer for a White House bid.

Seven hopefuls who did not poll strongly enough to make it into the top tier participated in a debate earlier. The only woman in the 17-candidate primary free-for-all, former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carly Fiorina, shined in the early debate.

In the main event, Bush, who hasn’t appeared in a debate since his gubernatorial reelection campaign in 2002, tried to stay out of the controversy in the debate’s opening moments.

He stuck to his strategy of running on his record as Florida governor, while avoiding stumbling over his words as he did on Monday night during a forum in New Hampshire.

“I’m gonna have to earn this. Maybe the barrier — the bar’s even higher for me. That’s fine,” Bush said. “I’m proud of my dad, and I’m certainly proud of my brother. In Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it . . . I am my own man.”

Several once-promising candidates — including Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Paul, of Kentucky — were in need of a boost Thursday night, while neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee were hoping to broaden their appeal beyond the more conservative wing of the party.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican serving his first term, has been trying to translate a charismatic personality into a more formidable campaign built on policy proposals.

“This election cannot be a résumé competition,” Rubio said. “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.”

“This election better be about the future, not the past,” he added. “If I’m our nominee, we will be the party of the future.”

Christie and Paul engaged in a bitter back and forth over government surveillance that illustrated the broader debate within the party.

“I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans,” Paul said, which quickly spurred a retort from Christie.

“That’s a completely ridiculous answer,” he said. “How are you supposed to know?”

“Use the Fourth Amendment!” Paul responded. “Get a warrant!”

“Listen, senator, you know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie said. “When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure that you use the system the way it’s supposed to work.”

Paul then hit Christie with a jab for embracing President Obama just after Hurricane Sandy.

“I don’t trust President Obama,” Paul said. “I know you gave him a big hug. If you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.”

Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who entered the race several weeks ago, was hoping to capitalize on momentum that narrowly put him into the top 10 and saved him from the embarrassment of being withheld from a debate that was held in his state.

He seemed to enjoy a hometown advantage from a crowd that gave him more applause than others.

In one notable moment, Kasich said that while he was not personally in favor of gay marriage, he would love his daughters if they came out as gay to him.

“I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay,” he said. “Because someone doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them.”

The debate on Thursday was the first of 11 to be held over the next seven months, and was much anticipated in large part because of one man: Trump.

His chin always up a few notches and his eyes squinty, Trump gesticulated with his hands and made every point emphatically. He offered commentary on elected officials (“Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid”) and his views on the media (“Reporters are a very disingenuous lot, generally”), and delivered advice to Paul (“You’re having a hard time tonight”).

At one point, he argued that the political system is broken because he himself has donated to so many candidates, asked them for favors — and then got those favors.

“With Hillary Clinton?” Trump said. “I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice because I gave.”

Aside from Paul, few of the candidates seemed willing to take on Trump directly. In what amounted to gunslingers in an old Western, no one was brave enough to try and take on the man with the fastest, yet most unpredictable, draw.

“He’s hitting a nerve,” Kasich said of Trump. “People are frustrated,” added Rubio.

Only when pushed directly did Bush speak up against Trump. “Mr. Trump’s language is divisive,” Bush said.

“He’s a true gentleman, he really is,” Trump said about Bush. “And I mean that.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.