Trump-free forum provides rehearsal for GOP contenders

Fourteen Republican presidential candidates took their messages out for a test drive on Monday night at a presidential forum in New Hampshire, with the contenders seeking to sharpen their arguments ahead the main event on the debate stage in Cleveland later this week.

{mosads}The C-SPAN forum at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire was touted by its media-outlet sponsors as a more inclusive alternative to the first Republican debate on Thursday, but the net result lacked much of the drama that’s expected from the gathering later this week.

One by one the candidates marched on stage to answer questions from a moderator in a format that felt like speed dating. There were no attacks, no back-and-forth between candidates, and the presidential hopefuls largely stuck to well-worn lines from their stump speeches in brief appearances onstage.

Perhaps most glaringly, there was also no Donald Trump, who passed on the event because he said he didn’t believe the New Hampshire Union Leader, which co-sponsored the forum, would endorse him for president. His name was never even mentioned on Monday night.

The event had a more collegial feel, with the candidates sitting together in the front row and the camera often catching them fraternizing with one another.

“I’m really impressed with the caliber of people we have running for president,” Jeb Bush said to close out the night. “Every person participating in this debate is far better than any Democrat running. I’m honored to be among the candidates.”

Republican front-runners Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker turned in safe performances at the event.

Bush told the story he’s told countless times on the campaign trail about turning the Florida economy around as governor. He delivered one solid new line about liberals who are disputing his claim that, as president, he’ll get the economy growing at 4 percent per year.

“The fact that [New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman disagrees with me warms my heart,” Bush said.

Walker similarly recounted the fiscal successes he says he’s had as governor, and sought to frame himself as a fighter who has consistently won elections in a blue state by espousing conservative ideals.

“I won three elections in four years,” Walker said. “I did it by taking bold actions and we got results because of it. Whether we’re running against Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden next year, I’m a new, fresh face from outside of Washington with a proven track record.”

With so many candidates and often times so little daylight on the issues between them, the GOP hopefuls sought to highlight areas they believe set them apart, or aspects of their records they believe will best serve them in the primaries.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose late entrance into the race has given him a boost in the polls just in time to perhaps help him qualify for Thursday’s debate, repeatedly reminded viewers that he was chairman of the House Budget Committee when Congress balanced the federal budget in the 1990s under then-President Bill Clinton.

“We got it done then and we can do it again,” Kasich said

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has similarly been fighting for one of the final spots on the debate stage, highlighted the fact that he’s one of the only Republicans to touch the “third rail” of politics by putting forth a plan to overhaul the nation’s entitlement programs.

“We’re mortgaging away our kids’ futures and killing those programs, so we have to tell people the truth,” Christie said. “We’re living longer lives so we need to increase retirement age. … If you’ve done well in this country, we need you to not take your Social Security check. Those are things Americans are willing to hear.”

Fox News is capping Thursday’s first presidential debate at 10 based on national polling numbers, and it appears increasingly likely that Christie and Kasich will nab the final two spots on the debate stage.

There are four U.S. senators running for president. Three, Sens. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, were cabled in from Washington, where they stayed to cast votes to defund Planned Parenthood just hours before. Sen. Lindsey Graham skipped the vote and was in New Hampshire for the forum.

Back in January, those three were the only participants at a Koch Brothers forum that was the first unofficial presidential forum of the cycle. There, Paul stood out for his non-interventionist views.

On Monday night, Paul’s dovish stance was once again on full display.

“War should be seen as the last resort, not the first resort, that’s what Ronald Reagan believed,” Paul said. “I will do whatever it takes to defend the country … but I don’t think we should just go to war as if it was a game of Risk.”

Rubio, who spoke directly after Paul, has emerged as one of the party’s leading voices on national security. He struck a different tone.

“As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, almost on a daily basis I review the threats coming at our country,” he said. “Suffice it to say, we’re living in a time that is increasingly more dangerous than any we’ve lived through before.”

Paul and Rubio split on the issue of government surveillance. The Kentucky senator sought to highlight his efforts to rein in the government’s ability to look at emails and phone calls of private citizens, while Rubio responded that those activities are a critical tool in preventing terrorism.

“It’s not a matter of if we’re going to be attacked, it’s a matter of when,” Rubio said. “When we are, the American people are going to want to know why we didn’t know about it and why we weren’t able to stop it.”

Cruz was his normal firebrand self, reiterating a line about President Obama’s deal with Iran over its nuclear program that has been criticized by some as overheated rhetoric.

“If this [Iran] deal goes through, the Obama administration will become the leading global financier of radical Islamic terrorism,” Cruz said. “President Obama attacked me from Africa for saying that. … Let me tell you something — speaking the truth is not rhetoric.”

The forum was a nice showcase for the candidates who will likely miss out on qualifying for Thursday’s Fox News debate.

While those who don’t make the cut will participate in an earlier forum, Monday’s event pitted those with low polling numbers side-by-side with the upper tier of candidates.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is still trying to recover from a 2012 debate performance that essentially sunk his first White House bid, boasted about Texas’s job growth under his leadership, while energetically declaring that as the governor of a border state, he’s most qualified to deal with illegal immigration.

“I’m an incredible optimist about the future of this country,” Perry said to close out his time. “We’ve made it through two world wars, the Great Depression and Jimmy Carter. We’ll make it through Obama, I promise.”

Perry has received raves from some conservatives for his better grasp on policy and some proposals he’s presented on the campaign trail. He’s also emerged as Trump’s fiercest critic.

However, he’s failed to gain much traction in the polls, and looks like he might be the first candidate left off the stage on Thursday night.

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina has also won solid reviews on the trail as one of the party’s sharpest critics of Hillary Clinton.

That continued on Monday night, with Fiorina saying Clinton “stood over the bodies of the fallen” and “lied about Benghazi.” Fiorina also accused Clinton of lying about using a personal email account as secretary of State.

“I think Hillary Clinton thinks these are political inconveniences, but they’re far more than that,” Fiorina said. “These things go to the core of her character.”

Fiorina, who is also likely headed to the earlier forum rather than the prime-time debate, took an implied dig at Fox News Channel’s criteria for determining who gets on stage by thanking C-SPAN for, “reminding the political class that we don’t have a national primary and for managing to get all of the candidates here to the first in the nation primary state.”

Tags 2016 GOP primary Donald Trump Jeb Bush Marco Rubio Scott Walker Ted Cruz

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