While the Republican debates on Thursday night were of course great theater, sometimes substance was able to surface. For those seeking it, at least.

Small-business owners, no doubt, are among the most interested in reading these early political tea leaves.

So what were the big takeaways for entrepreneurs? Here's what stood out amid the circus.

1. On Donald Trump. The Donald refused to say he'd rule out a third-party run. That could pose a significant challenge to Republicans wary of another Ross Perot scenario: The independent candidate helped hand the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.

"The Trump-centric debate mirrored what to date has been a Trump-centric primary chase: All-Donald most of the time," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow specializing in California and national politics at the Hoover Institution. "And so it will be until he wears out his welcome and finds a new hobby other than politics."

And Trump's performance dismayed some prominent venture capitalists, such as Marc Andreessen, who tweeted about it:

 

2. On Obamacare. Nearly every Republican except Ohio governor John Kasich said they'd gut the health care law, as well as entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.

For Jeb Bush, killing the health care law was equivalent to getting the U.S. economy growing again at his target 4 percent growth rate.

"You get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something that doesn't suppress wages and kill jobs," Bush said.

Similarly, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said: "One of the best things we can do is get the government out of the way, repeal Obamacare," as well as lower the tax rate and reform the tax code.

3. On immigration reform. Earlier in the week, the candidates seemed to compete to outdo one another for how draconian they'd be with so-called illegal immigrants. In the earlier "kids' table" debate, former Texas governor Rick Perry said he'd conduct nonstop surveillance along Texas's 1,900-mile border.

But the prime-time candidates softened their stance a bit.

Bush said he'd make undocumented immigrants pay a fine. About his plans for a border fence, Trump said: "I don't mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally."

4. On Carly Fiorina. The former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard seemed be the dark-horse winner of the sparsely attended underdog debate earlier in the evening.

Fiorina, who is polling at about half a percent, took aim at Trump, questioning his conservative cred.

"He has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care, and abortion," she said. "What are the principles by which he will govern?"

She also called Hillary Clinton untrustworthy and unaccomplished.

The majority of her statements, however, were a rehash of her recent performance in a New Hampshire candidates' forum and from a July town-hall event conducted by phone.

Yet she held her own on a stage predominantly occupied by older white men whose best years might be behind them, political analysts said.

"Carly Fiorina was the only one who didn't sound like she had time-traveled from the Reagan administration," says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a left of center think tank.

Looking ahead, political analysts said the first debate was essentially a do-or-die moment for many of the remaining candidates, particularly those who failed to define themselves.

"Several candidates demonstrated that they had no business being on that stage and should probably be replaced by others from the first debate," says John Hudak, a fellow in government studies at Brookings Institution. "Christie, Cruz, Carson, and Huckabee were thoroughly outperformed by Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal and, frankly, Rick Perry."

Published on: Aug 7, 2015