Donald Trump doesn’t rule out third-party run at Fox News debate

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CLEVELAND — Donald Trump upended the much-anticipated prime-time Republican presidential debate within the opening seconds.

When asked for a show of hands for anyone would not rule out a third-party presidential bid, Trump was the only one of 10 candidates on stage to raise his hand.

It was immediately apparent that classic Donald Trump showed up to the debate — someone who pushes the boundaries in everything he does, including running for the White House.

Beyond refusing to rule out an independent race that could potentially rob Republicans of the White House in 2016, Trump used the opening moments of the debate to ridicule comedian Rosie O’Donnell and griped about his treatment by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

“I mean this is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK?” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Then, the ever-unapologetic Trump chastised the country for being too “politically correct.”

“I’ve been challenge by so many people and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” Trump quipped.

Kelly challenged Trump on some of his past comments towards women.

“You call women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she said.

Trump quickly responded: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

Trump is smack in the center of the debate line-up tonight. The lower tier of presidential contenders had their brief moment in the sun earlier Thursday at a debate where Carly Fiorina delivered a memorable and polished performance.

Still, all the attention is on the prime-time debate, which is unlike any other in memory. For one, the 17-member GOP field is so large that Fox News split the debate into two, with only the highest-polling candidates getting a spot in prime time. Moreover, the event features a wide range of politicians including a trash-talking former reality television star, the son and brother of former presidents, a governor who survived a recall election and a renowned neurosurgeon.

It’s a particularly high-stakes moment for Trump, whose early dominance has both stunned — and aggravated — members of his own party. National Republican leaders have at times seemed unsure of what to make of the fact that such a no-filter politician with no obligations to the party could unexpectedly become the GOP’s standard-bearer. The evening is also an opportunity for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to move past a shaky few days that included controversial comments about women’s health care along with an uncomfortable performance at a New Hampshire candidate forum.

The open contempt for Trump was on full display at the earlier debate. It took only 11 minutes before candidates came out swinging against Trump began there.

Lesser-known contenders including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Fiorina slammed Trump, blasting the billionaire businessman’s conservative credentials and friendly relationship with Hillary and Bill Clinton.

“I talked about Donald Trump from the standpoint of being an individual who is using his celebrity rather than his conservatism,” said Perry, who has positioned himself as one of Trump’s biggest antagonists on the trail. “How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?”

A Bloomberg survey released Tuesday had Trump at 21%, handing him a double-digit lead over both Bush, who was at 10%, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was at 8%.

Trump, Bush and Walker are on the prime-time debate stage with Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich.

Trump has tried to quell expectations, downplaying any preparations ahead of this week. But it’s clear that Thursday night has the potential to be a turning point both for his candidacy and by extension a party that is desperate to win back the White House.

Besides Trump, Hillary Clinton is likely to be another favorite punching bag at the prime-time debate.

In the earlier event, the candidates savored opportunities to go after the Democratic frontrunner. Describing Clinton as “secretive” and “not trustworthy,” they slammed her on issues ranging from foreign policy to her use of a private email server at the State Department.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also took a more personal shot at Clinton, criticizing her now-infamous comments that she and Bill were “dead broke” after leaving the White House.

“I know the difference between flat broke — apparently she doesn’t,” he said. “Hillary, I’ll show you flat broke. That’s not it.”

Fiorina emerged as the star of the earlier debate. She used the venue to highlight some of her best assets: that she is a seasoned public speaker with smooth delivery; she is the only woman in the crowded GOP field; and that she is an outsider candidate with the potential to harness the widespread frustration with Washington. That is a theme the top tier candidates will likely hit hard during prime time.

When candidates aren’t attacking Trump or Clinton, they’ll likely target President Barack Obama — especially on immigration. The topic has taken center stage in the 2016 cycle, in large part because of Trump’s impassioned — and at times inflammatory — remarks about illegal immigration and strengthening the border.

Presidential hopefuls went after Obama on immigration in the earlier debate.

“I know we have a president who wants to do whatever he wants to do and take his pen and his phone and just tell everybody what he thinks is best,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said. “But the reason America is a great country, the reason is because our compassion is in our laws and when we live by those laws.”

Perry said the U.S. border was “still porous,” and hit Obama for failing to secure it.