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Trump refuses to rule out running as an independent during GOP debate

WATCH ABOVE: The ten top-polling Republican Presidential candidates participated in the first GOP-sanctioned debate. It was a still a crowded field, but one candidate in particular managed to steal the spotlight – again. Craig Boswell reports.

CLEVELAND – The Republicans set in motion a key ritual of the American political process Thursday, with billionaire businessman Donald Trump using the opening moments of the party’s first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign by refusing to rule out running as an independent.

At centre stage, the Republican frontrunner was the only one of 10 candidates to raise his hand 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.

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That enraged Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who said Trump was “already hedging his bets because he’s used to buying politicians.”

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Trump had already loomed over the events Thursday night. During an earlier event for candidates relegated to a discussion outside of prime time, Trump took shots for his past positions in favour of universal health care and abortion rights.

WATCH: The best of Donald Trump at the GOP candidates debate

Trump remains a longshot candidate to replace President Barack Obama, but the brash real estate mogul and reality television star took centre stage in Cleveland, Ohio, as top performer in several recent national polls. Only 10 candidates were invited to participate in the main event, with the remaining seven relegated to a pre-debate forum.

It’s a key test for Trump, whose unpredictable style and unformed policy positions mean he doesn’t fit neatly into any single wing of the Republican Party.

That appears to be a draw to some Republicans frustrated with Washington and career politicians, but others fear his eccentricities and outlandish comments -whether about Mexican immigrants being “criminals” and “rapists” or his questioning of the war record of Sen. John McCain – will taint the American public’s view of the party.

As in the 2012 Republican primaries, the party faces a tug of war between those eager for a candidate with broad general election appeal and those who think the key to winning is nominating a fiery conservative.

Four years ago, the establishment favoured Mitt Romney, but he struggled to gain the support of conservatives who dominate the state-by-state primary contests that choose the party candidate

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Standing to Trump’s left on the debate stage Thursday night was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a favourite of the wealthy donors and business leaders that populate the establishment wing of the Republican Party. But Bush, the son and brother of two former U.S. presidents, has struggled to separate himself from the rest of the field and he faces questions about whether his nomination would mark a return to the past.

Immigration and counterterrorism dominated the early stages of the debate, two issues that highlight the deep divisions within the Republican Party.

READ MORE: Donald Trump visits Mexico border, claims Hispanics love him

Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, defended his call for a path to legal status for some of the people living in the U.S. illegally. It’s an unpopular position among some Republican voters who equate legal status with amnesty.

“The great majority of people coming here have no other option,” Bush said.

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Trump in particular has pushed the issue of immigration throughout the summer. He said Thursday border patrol agents agreed with his comments about Mexicans, and he took credit for immigration being an issue in the2016 campaign.

“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration,” he said.

Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie engaged in a heated exchange over the USA Patriot Act and laws giving government access to Americans’ phone records.

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Christie, a former U.S. attorney, said he was the only person on the stage to file 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.

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Paul, a staunch opponent of the surveillance programs, said he wanted to collect more records from terrorists, not law-abiding Americans. He said Christie’s embrace of the counterterrorism policies amounted to “hugging” Obama, a reference to the governor’s embrace of the president in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in the days before the 2012 election.

To Trump’s right was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose victories over labour unions in his home state created his national profile.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the youngest candidate in the field at age 44, was trying to carve out a niche as a foreign policy expert, but has struggled to break through this summer – particularly since Trump’s surge.

The remaining seven candidates who didn’t make the cut for Thursday night’s main debate were relegated to a pre-debate forum, a low-key event in a largely empty arena, where candidates avoided debating each other and largely stuck to scripted responses on domestic and foreign policy.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businesswoman Carly Fiorina opened the early event with biting criticisms of Trump.

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Perry – whose failed 2012 White House campaign was damaged by an embarrassing debate stumble – accused Trump of using “his celebrity rather than his conservatism” to fuel his run for president.

Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field, said Trump had tapped into Americans’ anger with Washington, but she challenged the businessman as lacking policy positions. “What are the principles by which he would govern?” she asked.

READ MORE: Trump’s lawyer reportedly threatens reporter, says ‘you can’t rape your spouse’

While the candidates pitched their visions for the Republican Party’s future, they also were making the case that they would present the strongest general election challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Thursday’s debate is the first of six Republican Party-sanctioned debates scheduled before primary voting begins in February.

The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, released plans for its presidential debates, announcing the first of six will be held Oct. 13 in Nevada.

Associated Press writers Steven R. Hurst and Julie Pace reported from Washington. Steve Peoples reported from Cleveland.