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Post-Debate Debate: Will Trump Keep His Lead in GOP Race?

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/7/2015 Laura Meckler
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WASHINGTON—Debate was under way Friday morning over whether Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s performance at the first GOP debate helped or hurt him, but it was clear that for the moment, he remained the center of the conversation.

Some argued that the tough questions put to him by Fox News moderators, and his unwillingness to rule out an independent run, would turn off Republican voters and that his soaring poll numbers would begin falling to Earth.

Others said Donald Trump showed himself as the same Donald Trump who has caught on with Republicans and would stay atop the field.

Among other candidates, pundits settled on a rough consensus that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, along with Carly Fiorina in the early evening debate, had done themselves good, and that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had a meh sort of night.

“Kasich and Rubio gained the most,” Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, said on Twitter. “Bush and [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker were neutral. Trump did fine, but his act will wear thin.”

The biggest divides were over Mr. Trump.

“Trump was hilarious, but it seems even the crowd at the RedState Gathering who like Trump thought he lacked some depth where he should have had some,” Erick Erickson, the editor of the conservative website RedState, wrote on his site. “There was a lot of anger toward Trump, even from his supporters at the gathering, that he’d potentially run third party. People want to beat Hillary.”

On morning talk shows, Mr. Trump defended his openness to running as an independent, saying it is only smart to use that “leverage” to his advantage now.

“I’m a natural negotiator and I like leverage, to be honest with you. That’s really what the country needs,” he said on MSNBC. “I just felt that, Why should I give up this leverage?” He added: “I am running as a Republican, and I’m winning by actually a lot.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress who now co-hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” predicted Mr. Trump’s numbers would fall in the wake of the tough questioning. “I think you’re going to see him lose five, six, seven, eight points off of this,” he said on his show.

On Friday morning, Democrats worked to raise money off the debate, sending supporters a fundraising email. “We can’t let any of those candidates or their policies anywhere near the White House,” wrote Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser on President Barack Obama’s two campaigns, said in an interview Friday that he thinks most of the GOP candidates accomplished what they set out to. “Trump was obnoxious and belligerent, but that’s his brand,” he said.

A focus group convened Thursday night by Republican consultant Frank Luntz found that the debate changed minds of Republicans who had liked Mr. Trump going in.

“Being Donald Trump made him the front-runner, but tonight his act wore thin. He lowered the level of political discourse, and participants were really disappointed. The theme from our session: Dump Trump,” Mr. Luntz wrote.

“I was really expecting him to do a lot better, but he just crashed and burned. He was mean, he was angry. He had no specifics,” one focus group participant said on Fox.

Some were upset that he held out the possibility of running as an independent if he loses the GOP nomination. “If he runs as an independent, he’s going to be basically handing the election to Hillary Clinton,” one woman said.

Others said the opposite.

“He did great,” said Vince Coglianese, executive editor of the conservative website the Daily Caller, speaking on “Morning Joe.” “People responded to Trump big time.” He described Mr. Trump’s style this way: “It’s evocative. It’s emotional.”

Two unscientific online polls backed up that view.

Time magazine found that Mr. Trump took 47% of nearly 55,000 votes. Sen. Rubio was in second place with just 10%. A Drudge Report poll found more than half of nearly 362,000 voters favored Mr. Trump, putting him well ahead of the other candidates.

And, love him or hate him, people on Friday were still talking about him. Google Trends listed Mr. Trump as the most-searched candidate after the GOP debate. Following him, in order, were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Kasich.

Write to Laura Meckler at laura.meckler@wsj.com

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