Fourteen Republican presidential candidates underwent rapid-fire interviews over the course of two hours in Manchester, New Hampshire Monday night, in what many are calling a practice round ahead of the first official GOP primary debate in Cleveland on Thursday. The Voters First Forum, which was intended to give a snapshot of each candidate in the gigantic Republican field, allowed the hopefuls to avoid debate-style clashes and really stick to their talking points — both of which the forum organizers likely hoped to avoid.
Even though the evening lacked its “wow” moment, here are five takeaways from Monday’s session:
1) New Hampshire is determined to take all the candidates seriously, even if one of them didn’t reciprocate. The forum, which felt like two hours of political speed dating, was in contradistinction to — if not a clear shot at — Fox News and CNN for excluding candidates from their debate stages. That even included Senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz answering their questions remotely because the vote to defund Planned Parenthood kept them in Washington.
But Donald Trump, who continues to lead the polls, passed on the evening, saying the New Hampshire Union Leader wouldn’t endorse him anyway. And, like so many other things The Donald does, it didn’t affect him. As James Hohmann points out at The Washington Post, Trump still got more mentions on Twitter than any other Republican candidate during the forum.
2) All of the candidates were extremely protective of how they might approach Thursday’s first GOP debate. Aside from some tough talk on foreign policy which always polls well among Republican voters, the 2016 contenders were short on specifics and were often indistinguishable from one another to avoid tipping their hands too early before debate season is underway.
3) Bad optics need correctives. Before Thursday’s debate in front of a much larger television audience, several of the candidates need some tightening up of how they appear to voters. George Pataki, no matter how difficult the question, has a grimace on his face. Jeb Bush perhaps being overly complimentary toward his opponents may be seen as part of his ever-growing persona of being a condescending man, as in, Al Gore-condescending. And, as Eli Stokols points out at Politico, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina look desperate even before the first official debate.
4) The lowest polling candidates put themselves in conversation with Hillary Clinton. Perhaps out of desperation (see above) or perhaps out of recognition that they aren’t competing well in their cohort, those who are at the bottom of the polls sought to show themselves as the candidate who could beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Lindsey Graham invoked Monica Lewinsky before saying, “I am fluent in Clinton-speak.” Carly Fiorina said she had met more world leaders than any 2016 candidate, “With the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, although I didn’t just do photo ops.” And Bobby Jindal said, “Obama, Hillary Clinton are no better [than Bernie Sanders], they are just not honest enough to call themselves socialist.”
5) And there were some basic unforced errors.
Rick Santorum is confused about the end of slavery.
Wait Rick Santorum definitely just said Abraham Lincoln passed a bill to free the slaves >> <<
— Dara Lind (@DLind) August 4, 2015
Ben Carson contradicted the Republican stance on the “War on Women.”
Ben Carson: “There’s a war on women, racial wars, income wars, age wars, you name it there’s a war on it”
— Betsy Woodruff (@woodruffbets) August 4, 2015
George Pataki might not have been sure why he was on the stage last night.
Pataki just said “If i run”
— Michelle Fields (@MichelleFields) August 4, 2015
For Rand Paul, Planned Parenthood and Obamacare are the same thing.
Oops I obviously meant I’ve been spending the last few weeks fighting to defund Planned Parenthood but I’m happy to defund Obamacare too.
— Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul) August 3, 2015