CLEVELAND -- Seven low-polling Republican presidential hopefuls made the case for their candidacies Thursday at a forum hours before the first major debate of the 2016 cycle. Donald Trump, the leading GOP contender and headliner of the main event, overshadowed the so-called "kids table" forum from the start, with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggesting the real estate mogul is riding his celebrity to win the nomination and was insufficiently conservative.
“How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?”'
"How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?" Perry asked.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP field, also took a dig at Trump's conservative bona fides a day after news surfaced that he had consulted with former President Bill Clinton before entering the field. But she also acknowledged Trump's ascent in the polls, saying he had tapped into "an anger that people feel."
Several candidates took shots at the top Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, suggesting the former secretary of state would represent a third term of President Obama. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, in particular, was notably aggressive in attacking Clinton.
"To all Americans who want a better life, don’t vote for Hillary Clinton. You’re not going to get it," Graham said. "She’s not going to repeal Obamacare and replace it. I will. She’s not going to build the Keystone pipeline. I will. She’s not going to change Dodd-Frank. I will. Until you change the policies of Barack Obama, we’re never going to grow this economy."
Debate host Fox News allowed only the top 10 candidates in the 17-member field to participate in the main debate, scheduled for 9 p.m. ET. The 5 p.m. ET debate was set up for those left out.
Other candidates in the undercard event included former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
Each hopeful made a pitch for his or her own electability despite the weak poll numbers that placed them in the second-tier debate in the first place.
“To all Americans who want a better life, don’t vote for Hillary Clinton. You’re not going to get it."'
Perry said he had overseen the creation of 1.5 million jobs in Texas, many of them coming during the depths of the recession. Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses and was the runner-up to Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, insisted his social conservatism and advocacy for blue-collar Americans still had relevance. "I have a track record of getting things done," Santorum said.
Graham, asked whether his belief in man-made climate change puts him at odds with most Republican primary voters, refused to back down.
"You can trust me to do the following that when I get on stage with Hillary Clinton. We won’t be debating the science, we’ll be debating about the solutions," Graham said.
The candidates took turns condemning Planned Parenthood, which has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after videos were released by an anti-abortion group showing top medical personnel from the organization discussing fetal tissue in sometimes graphic terms. Jindal, who has fashioned himself the leading social conservative in the race, vowed he would use the power of the federal government as president to go after the organization.
“We have to stop President Obama’s disrespect and disregard for so many Americans."'
"Planned Parenthood had better hope that Hillary Clinton wins this election, because I guarantee you under President Jindal, January 2017, the Department of Justice and the IRS and everyone else we can send from the federal government will be going into Planned Parenthood," he said.
Jindal said his first executive order would be to protect religious liberties so business owners would not be forced to recognize same-sex marriage.
The candidates also vowed to void the Affordable Care Act, along with Obama's proposed Iran nuclear deal and executive action on immigration.
"We have to stop President Obama's disrespect and disregard for so many Americans," Fiorina said.