ATLANTA » The raucous field of Republican presidential candidates hustled back before voters Friday, hoping to build on momentum from their first meeting of the 2016 campaign — and clean up any debate-night messes left behind.
“It’s not easy with 10 people debating,” said Jeb Bush, who spent Friday on the New Hampshire coast before an evening town hall.
Bush, among the rivals scrambling for notice in a campaign dominated at the moment by Donald Trump, said, “I don’t view debating as a question of winning and losing. It’s the cumulative effect of shaping people’s opinions of who you are that matters over the long haul.”
After Thursday night’s debate, a long haul is what the GOP appears in for.
With billionaire businessman Trump showing no signs of letting up, and none of the other 16 major Republicans in the race ready to concede anything after just one debate, the contest for the Republican nomination is an unsettled affair that’s just getting started.
“Party donors, party leaders need to take a deep breath, put down the sharp objects, step away from the window,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said at the RedState Gathering of conservative activists in Atlanta. “The voters will decide who our nominee is. They’ll decide who the president is.”
And the voters seem to be loving the show.
Thursday night’s debate wasn’t just the most-watched program in the history of Fox News Channel, it drew more than twice as many views as the previous record-setter — the 2012 election night.
Bush, the former Florida governor, complained that the debate didn’t get into substance and marveled at all the public attention it drew.
“Was there no game on?” he asked as he spent his lunch hour Friday rehashing the forum over a lobster roll at Brown’s lobster shack in Seabrook, New Hampshire.
Undoubtedly, the reason for the record ratings was Trump.
He was back on TV Friday morning, telling the morning talk shows he couldn’t recall insulting women in the past — rejecting the premise of a debate question posed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.
“You know, some of the statements she made about the women, I don’t recognize those words whatsoever,” Trump said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” ”We’re going to take a very serious look at it.”
He won’t have to look far. Trump’s Twitter feed is sprinkled with insults to women — and some men — that use words such as “dog,” ”ugly,” ”dumb,” ”stupid” and “disgusting.” In the early hours of Friday morning, he also republished a tweet that referred to Kelly as a “bimbo.”
That dust-up, and Trump’s refusal to say he would support the eventual GOP nominee if he’s not the party’s choice, earned him the top headlines from the debate, overshadowing some of the GOP’s biggest stars and creating space for some new faces to shine.
But for all the attention on Trump, Bush said Friday the criticism lobbed at him by Democrats shows he is the candidate they fear most.
“I’ll take that as a badge of honor,” he said.
While Bush was thinking about the general election, many of the contenders headed south for RedState to work on shoring up their support among the party base.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry noted that he’d been relegated to the pre-debate debate for the seven candidates who failed to qualify for the main event. “I was up late last night,” Perry said. “Not as late as I wanted to be.”
But Perry campaigned as if one of the party’s top-tier candidates, declaring that his 14 years as governor in Texas prove he’s worthy of a promotion.
“It’s important for our country to have this discussion about executive experience,” Perry said, knocking President Barack Obama as “an inexperienced senator” who has “driven this country into a ditch.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also were speaking Friday at RedState. Bush will be there Saturday — along with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who now runs the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the ideological and personality struggle within the party as it searches for a nominee is a good thing. In part, he said, because he believes conservative activists are winning.
“Our work outside of Washington is paying off, because every one of those candidates wants to be the ‘most conservative,'” he said. “Our job is to start the parade, and we know the candidates will jump in front of that parade and lead it.”
Christie told the RedState crowd on Friday that his leadership of a Democratic-leaning state makes him “battle tested for Washington.”
During his Q&A, Christie fielded questions about how Southern conservatives can connect with his boisterous Jersey personality. Christie said Americans from all regions care about a sound economy, national security and individual liberty.
Then, he added, “Think about listening to this accent for eight years. … You’ll just have to deal with the New Jersey thing. It will be fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Kathleen Ronayne reported from Seabrook, New Hampshire. Nicole Winfield contributed from Seabrook and AP writer Bill Barrow from Atlanta.