MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- Fourteen Republican presidential candidates struggled to distinguish themselves amid a frantic barrage of questions at the Voters First Forum here on Monday.
The event was sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader and served as a preview of the first GOP presidential debate Thursday in Cleveland, complete with a spin room where campaign officials played up their bosses’ performance to reporters afterward.
If the results are any indication, the debate will consist of the candidates speaking at about four times their normal speed while running out the clock on the tougher questions. With so many participants crammed into just two hours, the contenders raced to get out their talking points and deliver a memorable quote before being whisked off the stage and replaced seamlessly by the next one.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker twice described President Obama’s newly announced regulations on carbon emissions from power plants as “a buzzsaw to the nation’s economy” – while ignoring a question from the moderator as to whether man-made pollution caused climate change.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked what he would do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States and whether he would reduce legal immigration and said he wouldn’t consider either question until boosting border security.
“The American people don’t trust Washington, D.C. to deal with this issue of immigration reform until we secure the border,” Perry said.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who announced his campaign last month and is battling Perry to meet the polling requirements for Thursday’s debate, took a similar question and said that some undocumented immigrants should gain legal status.
“We need to find out who they are, if they’re law-abiding, god-fearing folks, they’re going to have to pay a penalty towards legalization, and they'll have to wait,” Kasich said.
“It was upbeat – you had to keep going pretty fast because you knew you had a very short window to answer your questions,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told msnbc after the event. He used his brief time on stage to promote his plan to reduce legal immigration by 25%.
“It is a serious problem, everyone else is dancing around it,” he said.
The biggest difference between Monday’s summit and Thursday’s upcoming debate, however, was not the format but the absence of the race’s current frontrunner. Donald Trump, currently leading virtually all polls of the GOP field, skipped the event and the participants largely avoided any reference to him. The billionaire and his campaign offered several reasons for his decision, including the large number of participants and his outrage at the Union Leader for publishing an editorial critical of his remark that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was “not a war hero” because he was captured in Vietnam. McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2000 and 2008.
Three of the four sitting senators in the race – Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) – participated remotely in order to vote on a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, a cause that has gained a surge of momentum on the right over the past month after a pro-life group released a series of secret video recordings accusing officials of profiting off fetal tissue donations from abortions, a charge Planned Parenthood denies.
The effort failed to gain the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster, but some prominent conservatives are urging members to threaten a government shutdown next month by attaching the defunding measures to must-pass legislation funding the government.
Paul boasted that he had fought for years to defund the group, but he accidentally referred to it as “Obamacare” instead of Planned Parenthood (he corrected the error on Twitter afterward). Several other candidates also called on congressional Republicans to continue their efforts to defund the group.
“Absolutely [taxpayers] should not fund Planned Parenthood,” Dr. Ben Carson said. “These recent videos show the atrocity … and the level of depravity we have sunk into as a nation.
“[I] hope very much that we see Republican leadership actually lead the fight to get it done and we stop funding Planned Parenthood,” Cruz said.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also called on Congress to cut funding.
“This is about the moral character of our nation," she said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) missed the Planned Parenthood vote to attend the forum, where he turned heads with an attack on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s honesty that referenced her husband’s affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, while in office.
“I’m fluent in Clinton speak,” Graham said. “When Bill says ‘I didn’t have sex with that woman,’ he did, when she says ‘I’ll tell you about building the pipeline when I get to be president,’ that means she won’t, and when she tells us ‘Trust me, you got all the emails that you need,’ we haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defended his goal of 4% GDP growth while in office from naysaying economists and one Nobel Prize winner in particular.
“The fact that Paul Krugman disagrees with me warms my heart,” Bush said, arguing that a combination of a simpler tax code, reduced regulations on energy and reducing the growth of entitlement spending could achieve his aims.
Turning to foreign policy, Bush suggested that Americans had perhaps grown too complacent about terrorism threats since the September 11 attacks that occurred under his brother’s watch as president.
“I think we've let our guard down a little bit,” Bush said, citing the increased focus on “concerns about civil liberties” rather than national security threats.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emphasized his willingness to cut spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.
“We're mortgaging away not only our children’s future, but killing those programs,” he said.
Clinton's campaign responded to the GOP gathering and its regular attacks on her record in a statement.
"She is fighting to increase incomes for everyday Americans, repair our broken immigration system, end gender pay discrimination, invest in renewable energy, remove barriers to voting, bring down the cost of college, reduce student debt and cut red tape for small businesses," Hillary for New Hampshire State Director Mike Vlacich said. "Republicans stand in lockstep against this agenda for everyday Americans."
Only the top 10 polling candidates will make it to the main stage in Thursday’s Fox News debate, with some candidates like Perry, Kasich and Christie fighting for a final spot. The remaining candidates will participate in their own debate on the network earlier in the day.