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Republican front-runner Donald Trump won't rule out running as an independent

The first prime-time Republican debate of the 2016 campaign had the 10 presidential hopefuls squaring off tonight over issues immigration, security and abortion. But the opening moments were all about Donald Trump, who refused to apologize for comments he'd made about women or rule out running as an independent.

Border security, surveillance and Planned Parenthood dominate 1st prime-time Republican debate

In the opening moments of the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential election process, front-runner Donald Trump refused to rule out running as an independent. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

The first prime-time Republican debate of the 2016 campaign had the 10 presidential hopefuls squaring off Thursday night over immigration, security and abortion.

But the opening moments of the debate were all about Donald Trump, who refused to apologize for comments he'd made about women or rule out running as an independent.

At centre stage, the Republican front-runner was the only one of 10 candidates to raise his hands when the Fox News hosts asked if anyone onstage would not pledge to support the eventual party nominee.

"I will not make the pledge at this time," Trump said.

That enraged Senator Rand Paul, who said Trump was "already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians."

Gathered for the debate are Republican candidates New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Senator Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, businessman Donald Trump, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Because it would be near impossible to hold just one debate for all the Republican contenders hoping to represent the party in the 2016 presidential election campaign — currently at 17 — Fox News decided to hold two debates on the same night at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The top 10 candidates with the highest aggregate average poll numbers took part in the 9 p.m. ET prime-time debate. They include real-estate mogul Trump, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

Trump on women

Trump refused to apologize for making insulting comments about women.

Fox News host Megyn Kelly sharply questioned how Trump has described women in the past, criticizing their bodies and making sexually suggestive statements on his television show.

"I've been challenged by so many people and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness," Trump replied.

Kasich on same-sex marriage

Kasich received a rousing round of applause during the debate when he said he can disagree with someone on same-sex marriage and still love them.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said during the debate that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Asked how he would explain his opposition to gay marriage to a child who announced he or she was gay or lesbian, Kasich said: "I'm going to love my daughters no matter what they do. Because you know what? God gives me unconditional love, and I'm going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me."

Kasich said he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, but he urged his state's residents to respect the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage a nationwide right.

Bush defends illegal immigrants

Bush defended a statement he made last year, that people in the U.S. illegally have committed "an act of love."

Bush said most people staying in the country illegally are trying to provide for their family, a position that earned him groans from the audience in the Quicken Loans Arena.

He called for limiting legal immigration based on family ties, and expanding it for economic reasons.

Bush, whose wife is a naturalized Mexican immigrant, said: "There's much to do. Rather than talking about this as a wedge issue, the next president will fix this once and for all, as a driver for high, sustained economic growth."

Republican candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called for limiting legal immigration based on family ties, and expanding it for economic reasons. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Rubio said many U.S. citizens feel taken advantage of when it comes to immigration.

"This is the most generous country in the world when it comes to immigration," he said.

Patriot Act

Paul and Christie engaged in a heated exchange over the U.S. Patriot Act and laws giving government access to Americans' phone records.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, said he was the only person on the stage who had filed applications under the Patriot Act and gone before secretive courts for authority.

"I will make no apologies ever for protecting the lives and the safety of the American people," he said, arguing the government needs more tools, not fewer.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended the Patriot Act during the first Republican debate. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Paul, a staunch opponent of the surveillance programs, said he wanted to collect more records from terrorists, not law-abiding Americans.

Carson on race

Carson, the only black candidate on the stage, was asked why he doesn't talk more often about the issue of race.

"Because I'm a neurosurgeon," Carson said, adding that he operates on "things that make us who we are." 

Retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson says brains make people who they are, not skin colour. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Carson also had one of the first quips of the night. Asked whether he would support a return to using waterboarding to obtain information from terror suspects, he replied: "Thank you.… I wasn't sure I was going to get to talk again."

With 10 candidates on stage, there were long intervals between when each got to speak. Carson didn't say where he stood on the issue, saying he didn't think it was wise to telegraph America's military strategy to its enemies.

Planned Parenthood a target

​Huckabee said defunding Planned Parenthood is only one strategy for addressing revelations contained in recently released videos about abortion. 

He said during Thursday's debate he would like to see the constitution adjusted to protect the rights of the unborn. 

"It's time we admit the Supreme Court is not the supreme being," he said.  
Republican candidate Senator Ted Cruz speaks as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, left, listens during the debate. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

An anti-abortion group released several secretly shot videos with Planned Parenthood executives describing how the organization provides fetal tissue to medical researchers and discussing different procedures and prices. 
 
Planned Parenthood executives have denied claims that the transactions were sales and said any donations are legal and ethical. The law allows abortion providers to be paid for processing fees but not to profit from fetal tissue.

Rubio emphasized his opposition to abortion, saying he believes future generations will "call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies."

'Kids' table'

The remaining seven candidates —  former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal,  former New York governor George Pataki, former Texas governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — were relegated to the earlier 5 p.m. debate.

The low-polling candidates avoided debating each other and largely stuck to scripted responses on domestic and foreign policy.

Republican candidates from left, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and George Pataki participate in a pre-debate forum at the Quicken Loans Arena. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

With files from CBC News

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