One by one, they crossed the stage to sit for a round of what amounted to presidential speed dating.
The rapid-fire format of Monday’s Voters First Forum at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire left more than a dozen Republican presidential contenders awkwardly stumbling through questions on everything from immigration reform to the battle against ISIS.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush struggled to respond to questions about how he would differentiate himself from his father and brother — an issue that has daunted much of his campaign.
“My dad is probably the most perfect man alive, so it’s very hard for me to be critical of him,” Bush said, with a hint of snark. “In fact, I got a T-Shirt at the, ah, Jeb swag store that says, ah, um, ‘My dad’s the greatest man alive. If you don’t like it, I’ll take you outside.'”
The forum provided a hint of what to expect during the GOP’s first official debate of the election season on Friday night as candidates hedged their answers and sidestepped tough questions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is unlikely to appear on stage during Fox’s primetime debate, drew the most laughs during the pretty tame two-hour forum when he argued he best knew how to fight “Clinton-speak”.
He equated former President Bill Clinton’s promise that he never had sex with Monica Lewinsky to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s promises that she would explain her position on the Keystone XL pipeline if elected president.
“I’m fluent in Clinton-speak,” he said. “I understand this crowd and I can beat them.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking the support of oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, sidestepped a question about whether he believed in climate change, saying instead that he supports balancing the economy with the environment.
The biggest wild card of the 2016 primary battle, Donald Trump, was a glaring absence from the stage. He blamed a blistering editorial from the New Hampshire Union Leader condemning his candidacy as the reason he skipped the forum. Also skipping the forum were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio participated remotely because of a late Senate vote to defund Planned Parenthood, but Graham attended in person.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry claimed that Texas created one-third of the jobs in the United States while he was governor.
He also argued that he was best prepared to protect the border.
“It’s like a serious wound you want to staunch the flow, that’s not what happening in this country right now,” Perry said.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich argued that he was best positioned to handle the nation’s fiscal woes.
“It’s about record and accomplishment. I was there, I spent 10 years of my life balancing the budget,” said Kasich, who was House budget chairman last time the federal government sported a surplus. “When people balance their budget, so should the government.”
Graham positioned himself as the security hawk in the field, but got a few laughs when he said he was best able to handle the Clintons.
He said he understood “Clinton-speak” and tied former President Bill Clinton’s denial of having sex with Monica Lewinsky to Hillary Clinton’s promises to explain what she would do with the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I understand this crowd and I can beat them,” Graham said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the War on Drugs a “failure” and argued that his compassionate policies as governor proved successful.
“This is a disease, the War on Drugs, has been a failure, well-intentioned, but a failure,” he said.
Christie said that nonviolent offenders should have sentences reduced and more treatment must be made available, in face of the growing heroin epidemic.
Bush said that he would limit the number of legal immigrants allowed in the U.S. to spouses and children and would exclude adult siblings and older parents.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said that Clinton “lied” about Benghazi and her emails and that it spoke to the “very core of her character.”
Fiorina added that the eventual GOP nominee must be ready to throw every punch at Clinton.
“Here’s the thing, in order to beat Hillary Clinton, or whoever their nominee turns out to be, we have to have a nominee on our side who is going to throw every punch because this is a fight,” Fiorina said. “It’s a fight for the future of this nation, it’s a fight for the character of this nation and, unfortunately, we know that sometimes the right questions don’t get asked in a presidential debate.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former House member, said he would seek term limits, to curb the “permanent political class” in Washington.
Jindal, who was elected twice to Congress, said he would pay lawmakers to stay outside D.C. while they served.
“I’d pay them every time they stay outside D.C., rather than in D.C.,” he said.
Walker said as president he would send more power from the federal government back to the states.
“I think a big part of reform is taking big parts of the federal government … and take them from Washington and send them back to the states,” Walker said.
Paul, speaking remotely from Washington after a vote on Planned Parenthood, said he would address student debt by expanding the amount that people can deduct on their taxes.
“Essentially your college is a working expense,” Paul said. “This makes more sense than the president who says, ‘Hey, this is going to be free.'”
Paul also defended his push to limit government data collection, criticizing their mishandling of information on attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing.
“I think we can catch terrorists if we get more information on terrorists … The information we’re capturing indiscriminately on all Americans hasn’t captured any terrorist.”
Cruz said he is being attacked by the “Washington Cartel” for criticizing them.
“(The cartel) is career politicians in both parties who get in bed with lobbyists, they get in bed with special interests and they grow and grow government,” Cruz said.
Rubio said he would consider approving medical marijuana, but ruled out legalizing marijuana outright.
“As long as it truly is for medicinal purposes, that’s something I’m willing to explore,” he said.
Rubio also tried to address conservative criticism lobbed his way for his attempt to pass bipartisan immigration reform in 2013.