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In ‘Happy Hour Debate,’ Candidates Struggle To Break Through

August 6, 2015

Updated at 6:20 p.m.

So much for the idea that Donald Trump wouldn’t complicate the consolation debate for GOP hopefuls.

Speaking to a nearly completely empty arena in Cleveland, the seven candidates who didn’t make the cut for the main debate stage had to address their weaknesses head on by Fox News moderators. And they had to answer why the boisterous Trump was on the primetime debate stage and they weren’t.

So far, they’ve covered foreign policy and the threat of ISIS, tackled immigration reform and explained their approaches to the economy.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore all missed the cutoff to appear on that main stage at 9 p.m. for the first GOP presidential debate of the primary season.

The debate is being moderated by Fox News anchors Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum. You can follow along with NPR’s livechat here.

6:20 p.m. Each candidate’s closing statements in brief:

Perry: Texas is a success story, and I’d bring that to the White House

Santorum: I’ll look out for the American worker and will reduce immigration.

Jindal: We don’t have to abandon our conservative principles to win, and I can unite the country.

Fiorina: I can “throw every punch” against Hillary Clinton, and I’m not a professional politician. (She also appeared to leave her closing statement on a hotel printer, as spotted by Rand Paul’s spokesman Sergio Gor.)

Graham: I can be commander-in-chief on Day One and win the fight against ISIS.

Pataki: I delivered in a blue state like New York and I can deliver for the country.

Gilmore: I have the experience as a prosecutor, military veteran and governor to be president.

6:07 p.m. Rapid fire questions reveal a place where all the candidates agree — they’d all tear up President Obama’s executive orders on their first day in office.

6:03 p.m. When asked whether defunding Planned Parenthood would play in to Democratic attacks about “The War on Women,” Graham manages to pivot to saying the real war on women is in the Middle East, reminding voters he would send troops in to protect those areas and fight back ISIS. Foreign policy is obviously where Graham is the most comfortable.

5:59 p.m.: Martha MacCallum points out Pataki is the only pro-choice candidate running. He tries to clarify and says he’s personally opposed to abortion but says Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. He says he would support defunding Planned Parenthood though amid the recent controversy over videos that allege to show them selling fetal parts.

5:52 p.m. Santorum gets the question about same sex marriage. A vocal critic of gay marriage, he says it isn’t settled law despite the Supreme Court’s decision this month and says it’s the product of a “rogue Supreme Court.”He also equated is to the 1852 Dred Scott decision that effectively legalized slavery by finding they weren’t U.S. Citizens. It was eventually overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments. Many conservatives hope another Constitutional amendment could overturn gay marriage legalization, too.

5:48 p.m. It took almost 50 minutes for the Iran nuclear deal to come up in this debate. Perry is asked first question and says he would “tear up the deal.” He also seems to imply he would make Fiorina his Secretary of State, saying he would trust her negotiating this deal more than current Secretary of State John Kerry. Fiorina has touted her international experience and travels over Clinton when she was a Fortune 500 CEO.

5:42 p.m. Jindal takes an implied shot at Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who will be on the main debate stage. Kasich made the decision — unpopular with conservatives — to expand Medicaid in his state. Kasich has drawn on his faith for his rationale in doing so. Jindal says he wouldn’t have done it, though. “I don’t think anybody should expand Medicaid,” he says.

Pataki also jumps in and says he thinks Medicaid expansion is wrong and he wouldn’t have done it in New York, either.

Kasich has pitched the importance of Ohio (no Republican has won the White House without it) as a reason he should be the nominee. But this exchange shows there’s still a lot of skepticism of him on the right, and similar questions will likely come up at 9 p.m. too.

5:38 p.m. Santorum says he will soon introduce a “20/20 Vision” plan for the economy that would “take a blowtorch to the IRS” and include a 20 percent flat tax and increase manufacturing in the country. Santorum often gets stereotyped as simply a social issues candidate, but he has a blue collar appeal — how he got elected in Pennsylvania and how he was able to have a run of success in 2012.

5:37 p.m. Time for the economy. Graham turns the question to hit Hillary Clinton — something the party would like all candidates to do. “I know the difference between being flat broke. Clinton doesn’t.” He also cleaned up an antidote he used on Monday’s New Hampshire forum. Saying he knows “Clintonspeak” well, this time he only says if Bill Clinton asks “what the meaning of is, is” then “he did.” On Monday, he came outright and claimed the former president had sex with intern Monica Lewinsky — one of the biggest zingers of the night.

5:28 p.m. Santorum, a hardliner on immigration is asked about what you would do about DREAMers in the country. He uses a line that’s frequent from his stump speech — how his grandfather came here from Italy, dreaming of a new life. But he did it legally. “We’re a country of laws, not of men,” says Santorum.

Perry is also asked about immigration, and he draws, as usual, on his experience as governor of Texas, reiterating securing the border.

5:15 p.m.: Time for the elephant that isn’t in the room — and these participants hoped wouldn’t be here — Psych! Perry is asked about Trump, who he’s been unapologetic in attacking. Perry looks surprised, but doesn’t back down. He points out that Trump has changed his position on healthcare.

Fiorina jabs about a Washington Post report that Bill Clinton called Trump before he got in. She’s careful not to insult him too much, pointing out he taps into an anger people identify with, but piggybacks on Perry’s point that Trump once supported healthcare reform and also points out he once supported abortion rights.

5:09 p.m.: Following the same line of questioning, Graham is pressed on whether he’s too moderate. And Pataki and Gilmore — at the bottom of the polls — are asked whether it’s time for new blood in politics. Pataki hasn’t held office since 2006; Gilmore was last in office in 2002.

5:06 p.m. The Fox News moderators are going for the jugular. They start off by asking Fiorina whether her own comparisons to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are off base given her low standing in the polls. Santorum is asked whether his moment since his incredible 2012 surge has passed. And Jindal is pressed on his poor approval ratings at home. Tough questions off the bat — but highlights each of the candidates’ top weaknesses.

5:01 p.m. First question goes to Perry — who was atop the polls at this time in 2011 but famously flamed out, in part due to his poor debate performances. Perry argues the four years since as governor have made him more prepared. “Americans are going to see I’m ready to be that individual,” said Perry.

But This is his biggest hurdle — reintroducing himself to voters. It’s hard to make a first impression a second time.

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