Fox's 10-Ring Circus

The first official Republican debate Thursday night in Cleveland was a raucous affair, more like a moderated bear baiting, with Fox allowing cheers and boos and applause throughout as candidates took swings at each other or responded to questions meant to probe sore or weak spots. Donald Trump did not fail to deliver the bombastic rhetoric he promised of which had made the Thursday night event must-see TV for political junkies and rubberneckers.

With a classy red, white and blue rectilinear set that could have been designed by Mondrian, the venue sometimes belied the street fight tone of the proceedings within it.

Trump called the U.S. stupid, averred, when told he had called women dogs and pigs, that only Rosie O'Donnell had earned the epithets (ouch). Sen Rand Paul said Trump "buys and sells politicians," and Trump responded that it was true that when he wanted something from politicians he contributed to, they were there for him.

But he also made news by refusing to pledge he would not run as an independent.

Chris Christie and Paul got into a bit of a shouting match over the issue of NSA access to phone records, with Christie saying Paul got to sit in committee rooms and "blow hot air" about it, but Christie was responsible for protecting lives.

Paul referred to Christie's hug of President Obama (after Hurricane Sandy), with Christie countering that the hugs he remembered were those he gave to families who lost members on Sept. 11 (ouch).

The trio of moderators—Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier could hardly be accused of coddling the candidates. Chris was more like Mike Wallace and Megyn Kelly did not let up, firing off accusatory questions that might have made some of the seven candidates who had to settle for a kinder, gentler undercard forum earlier in the day not so unhappy with their lot.

After the question about Trump's characterizations of women, the candidate fired back that he could say something about Kelly, but wouldn't, given how she was treating him.

As promised, Fox did work some footage from the earlier forum—described by some pundits as the "kiddie table"—into the primetime main event, replaying some footage of Rick Perry and Carly Fiorina, arguably the highest profile candidates not to make the big show.

And if the tone of the debate was more mud (as in slinging) than Mudd (as in Roger), it was also entertaining political theater that had the Twittersphere buzzing with "best of" Trump quotes.