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Donald Trump rates his GOP debate performance: 'An unbelievable evening'

Donald Trump, the White House candidate leading among a crowded field of Republicans, discusses his performance at the party's first debate.
/ Source: TODAY

Donald Trump, the White House candidate leading among a crowded field of Republicans, says he is keeping open the option of a third-party run as "leverage."

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"I want to run as a Republican. I want to win the primaries. I want to then run as a Republican. I think we will win. Certainly that gives us the best chance of winning," he told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie in a phone interview Friday. "I don’t want to do the independent thing, but I do keep it and it is leverage."

Trump appeared to revel in the atmosphere and the attention he received during the debate.

"It was an unbelievable evening," he said. "I had a great time."

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Trump failed to disappoint fans and critics alike, immediately grabbing attention from the evening's start when he singled himself out as the only candidate to refuse ruling out a third-party run.

Trump entered the evening as the clear frontrunner among an extremely crowded field of 17 candidates — only 10 of which made it to stage. He was confronted on a number of questionable comments he has made previously, including calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals."

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He dismissed the idea that he may have lost women voters with those comments, saying "the audience was women" for his show, "The Apprentice."

Trump also softened the suggestion he made during the debate that Hillary Clinton attended his wedding because “she had no choice” since he had contributed to her Senate campaign and to her husband's foundation.

“I said it as a joke. I was joking when I said that,” Trump said. “They both came to my wedding and that was very nice.”

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But he said those donations point to a bigger problem in the political system.

“Like other businessmen I would contribute to everybody. By the way, that’s a real fault of this country because you contribute and people — two years later, three years later, when you need help, they help you. You don’t contribute, they don’t help you," he said. "It’s a sad factor, but it is a problem with this country, and it is a problem that in some form has to be rectified."

Follow writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.