Republican presidential candidates, from left, Lindsey Graham, Ben Carson, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Rick Santorum after the forum Monday in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republicans here wanted very badly to preempt the first presidential debate on Fox News by holding a more regionally focused event, to drive home the importance of their status as an early primary state.
They succeeded in getting 14 of the 17 candidates to show up here Monday. But what took place on the campus of Saint Anselm College was so far removed from the substance of an actual debate that it wasn’t clear what voters in New Hampshire watching on local TV, or anyone else watching on C-SPAN, could have learned from the cattle call of candidates.
The event was pulled together and organized by the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, a tremendous logistical undertaking for a regional media organization. It did so, calling it the Voters First Forum, in order to defy Fox News and other cable-TV giants who increasingly control the nominating process.
But because of rules put in place by the Republican National Committee to prevent GOP candidates from having to take part in too many debates that take up valuable preparation time and that, in the opinion of the RNC, create a dynamic of ongoing Republican-on-Republican criticism, the forum was fatally hamstrung.
The candidates were not allowed to stand onstage next to each other. That would have been a debate. So instead, they sat in theater chairs in the front row of an auditorium watching one another slide quickly onto a bar stool while their names and brief bios were read out over the loudspeaker. The audience sat silent, as instructed.
One by one, the candidates answered a handful of questions from local talk-radio host Jack Heath. They spoke for only four minutes each, fielding what were almost uniformly friendly questions asked from a conservative point of view by Heath.
“What compelled you to run?” Heath asked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “How do you run for president and tell the truth about entitlement reform?” Heath asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Heath asked the same entitlement question to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker but added that “some critics will say you’re anti-senior, anti-kid, anti-human.”
There was a second round of questions that was even shorter than the first. Each candidate got one or two questions and about 90 seconds to answer. Then Heath gave them 30 more seconds to say whatever they wanted. The result was all of the frustratingly truncated answers that limit the usefulness of a regular debate, but with none of the interaction between candidates.
The only way for candidates to engage with each other would have been for Heath to prod them to respond to specific comments by others. But he declined to do so.
And businessman Donald Trump — who is leading in the national polls — declined to participate in the event, depriving it of a figure who would have ensured fireworks. The two others who declined to come were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
All of which meant that the candidates’ comments were largely a recitation of talking points coupled with a rapid-fire recitation of their accomplishments. Little of what they said came even close to being newsworthy.
Bush, asked how the U.S. should deal with the Islamic State, endorsed sending some troops — but did so in a way that drew some attention.
“I think we need Special Forces. The idea of boots on the ground, I’m not sure that’s necessary,” he said.
Bush also drew some distinctions between his relationships with his brother, former President George W. Bush, and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
“I have a different view than my brother,” Bush said, but then added that he finds it hard to criticize his father. He was not asked to articulate how he thinks differently from his brother, or on what issue.
One of the few light moments came when Heath asked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry what government agencies he would get rid of. It was the question that led to Perry’s epic meltdown during a 2012 Republican presidential primary debate, when Perry could not name the three agencies he would cut.
“I’ve heard this question before,” Perry cracked, drawing one of the few laughs of the night from the audience. He went on to talk about cutting spending in general, but never answered the question.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), however, suffered a moment that was mildly similar to Perry’s 2012 stumble. He tripped over his words and had to stop his sentence and utter words similar to Perry’s defeated comment from years ago. “I’m sorry, I can’t,” Graham said, before starting over.
Graham provided one of the few zingers of the night, when he said that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, was not truthful, and used her husband’s past as evidence. Graham referred to former President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky during his presidency.
“When Bill says, ‘I did not have sex with that woman,’ he did,” Graham said.
On Twitter, the event was described as “speed dating.”
Stuart Stevens, who was a top adviser to the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, wrote on Twitter, “Have to say the ‘40 Year Old Virgin’ version of this NH forum was more fun. #speeddating”
Three of the U.S. senators who are running for the GOP nod stayed in Washington to vote on defunding Planned Parenthood, an effort that failed 53 to 46. These three — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — appeared via remote camera against a black background, alongside each other on the screen. It looked like a “Saturday Night Live” sendup.
Backstage, before the event began, the candidates stood in single file, as organizers implored them to remember how to stand in alphabetical order.
“These are people who could be the leader of the free world. I think they can remember each other’s last names,” an aide to one of the candidates said afterward.
Another aide complained that organizers were allowing some campaigns to have photographers backstage, while other campaigns had been told not to take pictures or video with their smartphones.
There was not a lot of sniping at Fox News from the candidates onstage. Many of them, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Christie and Perry, are trying to get into the debate sponsored by Fox on Thursday in Cleveland.
But former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina did show some frustration with the way that Fox has set up the first debate, which will heavily influence which candidates have a chance of moving to the front of the pack from the very crowded middle.
Fiorina thanked the organizers for “reminding the political class that we don’t have a national primary.”
Heath himself demonstrated a little bit of regional irritation as he ended a segment with Cruz, who has spent very little time in New Hampshire as he makes a play for the more culturally conservative voters in Iowa, which votes right before the Granite State early next year.
“Thank you, Sen. Cruz. We’ll see you in New Hampshire soon, I’m sure,” Heath remarked sarcastically.
The candidates who did attend avoided drawing attention for skipping out, with little cost other than their airfare. It was, a Bush adviser said, “something that doesn’t mean all that much unless we had made the decision to skip it, in which case it would have been bad.”