At around 5pm on Thursday night, Donald Trump's gaudy black and gold private jet, worth around $100 million, landed in Cleveland Ohio. Having skipped the Republican pre-debate on Monday (which provides a platform for candidates to woo major donors) saying it 'wasn't worth his time,' the abrasive real estate mogul took centre stage at the Fox Republican primary debate alongside seasoned Senators and Governors.
Trump's presence in the almost packed arena created an unprecedented level of media anticipation and interest, especially from Democrats who flicked to the Fox News channel for the first time expecting some entertainment. While most performances ended up being relatively lackluster, it was Trump who seemed to most disappoint Republican voters. Fox's political pundits called 'the collapse of Trump' as one of the major stories of the night.
The first Republican debate kicks off what is a lengthy and complicated process to select the Republican presidential candidate ahead of the 2016 election. Fox News selected the ten highest-polling candidates to take the stage. The final line-up included front-runner Donald Trump, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (George W Bush's brother), Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
The remaining seven candidates who are trailing in the polls, held a debate to an empty arena a few hours before. The lone woman in the Republican lineup, Carly Fiorina, was called the winner of that debate, which had far more foreign policy discussion.
With ten men on stage and each getting around ten minutes of debate time, the discussion was never going to be particularly substantive in policy terms. But between the bickering over who was more pro-life and attacks on Obamacare, a number of key foreign policy themes emerged. These issues will continue to dominate throughout to the presidential race and give us with some insights into foreign policy thinking in the Republican camp ahead of 2016.
Generally, there was little that separated the candidates' foreign policy positions, with most sidestepping answers and resorting to the usual chest-beating about terrorists. Predictably, the hot button topics remained Iran, ISIS and the Middle East.
The Iran deal
The 'Iran deal' has clearly become the target of the Republicans' most venomous attacks against the Obama Administration of late. In September, the House of Representatives and the Senate are due to vote on the agreement. To kill it, its opponents need a two-thirds majority in both houses to override Obama's veto power, though that looks unlikely.
Congress may not be able to bring down the Iran deal but many of the candidates indicated they would tear it up on day one of their presidency. Others such as Rand Paul were slightly more open, stating negotiations may still be an option. In the earlier debate for candidates who failed to garner enough support to make it onto the main stage, Carly Fiorina said 'Iran was at the heart of most of the evil' in region while another proposed a NATO alliance of Middle Eastern players to defeat both Iran and ISIS.
Iraq/Syria and ISIS
A large segment of the debate was devoted to ISIS and the Middle East. Jeb Bush, who is still struggling to distance himself from his brother's legacy, was thrown an awkward question about whether he would have invaded Iraq. Jeb admitted that, knowing what we knew now, he would not have (Bush had earlier flubbed this question).
Meanwhile, the early debate saw the hawkish Senator from South Carolina, Lindsay Graham, committing to put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Ted Cruz said he was told by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dempsey that there was no military solution to ISIS. He dismissed this as 'nonsense' and then went on to accuse the Obama Administration of offering 'Medicaid' to Iraqi extremists.
While Trump was not asked how he would defeat ISIS, he has previously claimed he has a 'foolproof' plan to defeat the Islamic state, though he is yet to share any details.
Jeb Bush, who is still seen as the most credible GOP candidate and likely future frontrunner, said ISIS was created from the void following the withdrawal. To make the Iraq invasion worthwhile, the US needed to stop the Iran agreement and take out ISIS — though he too failed to elaborate on how.
Defence and aid
A number of the candidates indicated their intention to strengthen and upgrade the military and increase the defence budget, which has recently been slashed. Governor Chris Christie weighed in with specifics, stating he would increase the size of the military to 500,000 active duty soldiers, 185,000 marines, a 350-ship navy and an air force of 2600 aircraft. Unsurprisingly, many candidates committed to cutting aid to America's 'enemies' but said little beyond this on the foreign aid topic.
What wasn't said
While the debate format inspires a populist approach to foreign policy, steering candidates to the more divisive topics, a number of subjects were notably absent. China, Russia, Putin and the Asian rebalance (or the Asian region altogether) received little to no mention other than concerns about Chinese and Russian cyber attacks. Trump remained worried about America's diminishing trade position vis-à-vis China, Japan and even Mexico, working it into his final speech. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) went unmentioned.
So what does it all mean?
This far out from the presidential race, it is hard to conclude much from Thursday's debate. But we can expect the Middle East to dominate policy discussions for the foreseeable future. It also appears that the flashy and feisty Trump may have lost a bit of his glimmer tonight, leaving the Republican race wide open to the 16 other scrambling contenders.