GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — A parade of Republican presidential hopefuls reached for ways to distinguish themselves in a historically large field Monday night, using the highest-profile presidential forum to date to land fresh zingers, test out a few jokes, and try to project a measure of national leadership ability.
The top-polling candidate across the country and in New Hampshire, casino and real estate mogul Donald Trump, skipped the forum, and no one even mentioned his name or the outsize influence he has had on the race.
Instead, this was a night for the rest of the field, with a scattershot debate format and a blizzard of issues that prevented any of the 14 participants from really standing out. Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida appeared content to play it safe, as well as nice, praising the quality of his primary opponents. Lesser-known candidates knew they were being seen by many TV viewers for the first time and used their fleeting moments on stage to simply make a good impression.
Predictably, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was a big target during the evening. Nearly everyone on the stage also spoke out against illegal immigration, at times using the coarse language that has caused the Republican Party problems among Hispanic voters, arguing that any effort to overhaul the nation’s laws must start with securing the borders.
“It’s like a serious wound, you want to staunch the flow — and that’s not what’s happening right now,” said Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas. For anyone overstaying visas, Perry said, “You go find ’em, you pick ’em up, and you send ’em back where they’re from.”
Governor John Kasich of Ohio said that “law-abiding, God-fearing” immigrants should pay a penalty and wait for legal status, but those who break the law “have to be deported or put in prison.”
The forum marked a new, more focused phase of the campaign as the candidates emerge from months of fund-raising and small-scale events and begin trying to appeal to a wider swath of the Republican primary electorate.
Tops on the agenda for at least half of the candidates: proving they deserve to be taken seriously after Labor Day, when voters will begin to tune in more closely and the pressure from campaign contributors to show a chance of winning will increase exponentially.
The “Voters First Presidential Forum” was in many ways an antidote to the much larger stage where the top 10 candidates will appear Thursday in Cleveland. Sponsors of Monday’s forum — including the New Hampshire Union Leader and NECN — have been trying to put a more local stamp on a campaign that has increasingly become nationalized, and one that benefits the better-funded, more well-known candidates.
But with 14 candidates fighting for time during a two-hour debate, it became at times a rollicking, political version of speed dating, with each candidate trying to cram as many words as possible into their allotted time. An ability to speak extremely rapidly and clearly, without stumbling, was required. In that regard, former technology chief executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, displayed solid command.
But many times other candidates, just as they began gaining some traction, would see their time expire, and moderator Jack Heath of WGIR radio cut them off. They were then forced to walk off the stage as the next candidate shuffled on.
Still, the forum Monday night may prove to be calmer than the one coming up on Thursday, when Trump will be back in the spotlight. Trump has surged to the top of most polls, to the dismay of a Republican establishment that is wary of a celebrity businessman who operates outside of almost all conventional political norms.
Trump snubbed the New Hampshire forum after the New Hampshire Union Leader, one of the debate sponsors, ran an editorial slamming him for saying Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee, was not a war hero. Aside from Trump, only Mike Huckabee and Jim Gilmore, who just announced his candidacy, were the only ones not to attend.
With only 10 slots available for the highest-polling candidates at the Fox debate in Cleveland, Monday gave an opportunity to candidates who might not be on that stage. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina earned one of the warmest receptions and generated the most laughter in the room. Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, rattled off a list of world leaders that she knows personally and displayed strong command of Mideast geography.
“I started out as a secretary. . . . and went on to lead the largest technology company in the world, and now I’m running for the presidency,” she said. “My story is only possible in America. But our nation is at a pivotal time.”
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky called on his party to do more to attract minorities (“We need a new GOP”) while Senator Ted Cruz urged it to do more to repeal Obama’s health care law (“If I am president, we will repeal every word of Obamacare”).
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said more needs to be done to combat drug addiction, and said that nonviolent offenders should get medical help, not jail time.
“This is a disease,” he said. “The war on drugs has been a failure — well-intentioned, but a failure.”
All of the candidates who were asked said they would defund Planned Parenthood, and no one spoke in favor of the Iran deal.
Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin criticized Obama’s plan to fight carbon emissions, saying it was unfriendly to businesses and would amount to “a buzz saw to the nation’s economy.” Walker did not answer a question about whether he believes climate change is caused by humans, but said instead that he was an Eagle Scout who learned to leave the campsite better than he found it.
“I want to balance the sustainable environment with a sustainable economy,” he said.
Most Republican activists and operatives say the primary so far has been unlike any they have ever seen, with a large, sprawling, and unpredictable field of candidates all fighting for attention.
Although most analysts have considered Bush the most likely nominee, he has struggled to fully motivate early voters and has been beset by continued concerns over whether the country could support a third Bush presidency.
“I have a different view than my brother,” Bush said.
He said he got a T-shirt at a “Jeb swag store” that says, “My dad’s the greatest man alive. If you don’t like it, I’ll take you outside.” But he stumbled over the words. Instead of blasting Hillary Rodham Clinton, as some of the candidates did, Bush praised the quality of his primary opponents.
Few candidates attacked one another by name Monday night, but there were oblique references.
“I’m a new fresh face without a name from the past,” Walker said, in a dig that could be aimed at either Clinton or Bush.
Several senators remained back in Washington, caught in a debate over whether the Senate will take up a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. It created the odd scenario where the trio — Cruz, Rubio, and Paul — appeared on big-screen televisions on the stage.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican who plans to stake much of his candidacy on New Hampshire, showed up and brought some of the strongest language against Clinton by claiming he was “fluent in Clinton speak.”
“When Bill says, ‘I didn’t have sex with that woman,’ he did,” Graham said. “When she says, ‘I’ll tell you about the [Keystone] Pipeline when I’m president,’ she won’t.”
“I understand this crowd, and I can beat them,” he added. “And if we can’t beat them, it doesn’t matter.”