WASHINGTON — Republicans are steeling themselves for a long period of uncertainty following a raucous first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign.

There are no signs that Thursday’s debate will winnow their wide-open field anytime soon.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Before the campaign got underway, party leaders developed a streamlined set of debates and a nomination calendar that aimed to avoid a messy fight.

But few envisioned a field of 17 candidates, the explosion of outside money that appears ready to keep second-tier candidates flush with cash, and the rise of Donald Trump.

“I don’t think we have to have total clarity,” said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman. “I think clarity is boring. I think what we have right now is some excitement, intrigue, and that’s great, as long as you can contain it.”

He said “containment means jabs and a few elbows are great, but I think beyond that it can be problematic.”

Rival camps do not expect Trump to be a serious contender for the nomination when voting starts early next year. But they also cannot predict what might drive him from the race.

Most Republican strategists expect little shake-up in the rest of the field before the second debate next month.

“The electorate is going to take time to think through this,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “So I think everybody else is going to have to have patience.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the two candidates closest to Trump in early polls, escaped the first debate without damage, but also without any breakthrough moments.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich capitalized on a home-state crowd at the Cleveland debate to exceed expectations with an upbeat and optimistic performance. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was praised for a substantive showing.

The candidates made their case before a prime-time audience of 24 million, making the debate the biggest nonsports cable broadcast history.

During the tumultuous 2012 Republican primary, a series of 13 debates before the kickoff Iowa caucuses kept the race in flux through its early months.

Four years later, party leaders have cut in half the total number of approved debates – just six before the Iowa caucuses in February.

So fewer debate chances for breakout moments or disqualifying stumbles. On top of that, Iowa canceled its famed summer straw poll – a death knell for candidates in the past.

The growth of super political action committees, which can collect unlimited donations, means fewer candidates are at risk of having to shut down because they are out of money.

“At this point in past cycles, there would be death watch coverage of a couple of the candidates,” said Fergus Cullen, the former New Hampshire Republican party chairman. “That’s not going to happen this time.”