At N.H. Forum, a Respite From Trump
At a forum for Republican presidential candidates in New Hampshire on Monday, the GOP field got a brief respite from the Donald Trump show. But even without the brash businessman on stage, other contenders struggled to hit their stride.
Jeb Bush struggled to concoct a response about fighting ISIS. Marco Rubio, who appeared remotely from Washington, D.C., couldn't seem to adapt to the audio delay. Rand Paul invoked the fight to defund Obamacare, when he meant Planned Parenthood. ("Oops," his official Twitter declared afterward.)
Working against them was the format, which was less a debate and more a political iteration of speed dating — with each candidate, perched casually on a stool, limited to just a few minutes and topics.
When they weren't onstage, candidates looked on awkwardly from the front row, and the camera occasionally cut away to their bored expressions.
Trump “gave various reasons for not coming here,” New Hampshire Union Leader Publisher Joseph McQuaid said on C-SPAN prior to the event. “The last one, interesting, is he determined ... that our newspaper would not be endorsing him for president.”
The UL-sponsored gathering was significant enough that 14 of 17 Republican presidential candidates participated. That was apparently insufficient incentive for Trump, who is riding atop the rest of them in the polls — and who will be squarely in the spotlight later this week, at the first Republican primary debate in Cleveland
The Voters First Forum on Monday was conceived as a rebuke to that event, hosted by Fox News and belatedly featuring a format that divides the field into two tiers. The event Monday offered all of the candidates the opportunity to speak on the same stage.
Absent from that stage, however, was Trump.
“As a moderator, my goal was not to bring him up,” said Jack Heath, a radio host who steered the forum. “I just thought it would be best to focus on the issues.”
He wasn’t the only one: During the two-hour program, not a single candidate invoked Trump. But he was no doubt the elephant in the room at Saint Anselm College.
Prior to the debate, two new polls showed Trump leading the field nationally and in New Hampshire. A Fox News survey showed support for him among Republicans nationally at 26 percent, an all-time high for any GOP candidate in this election cycle. And a WMUR survey found Trump dominant in the Granite State, leading his closest competitor, Jeb Bush, 24 percent to 12 percent, and with positive favorability numbers for the first time. (The RCP polling average has the business mogul ahead by 9.8 percentage points nationally and 4.6 points in New Hampshire.)
"I am so honored by these poll results and have such respect for the brilliance of the American people and that they are able to recognize all of the incompetence and corruption from our politicians, despite their smooth talk,” Trump said in a statement Monday.
Such polling will place Trump at center stage come Thursday’s debate, and the manner in which his Republican rivals will engage him there is an open question.
Although the event Monday did not offer a sneak peek of that coming attraction, it did preview candidates’ talking points and demeanor, and in particular sharply underscored the challenge of organizing a cohesive discussion among so many candidates.
With 14 of them participating Monday, including three remotely from Washington, D.C., stump speeches were condensed and recited at a fast clip, with each candidate hoping to stand out in some way.
At a minimum, the forum presented the chance for the White House hopefuls to work out a few kinks before Thursday’s twin debates.
As when former New York Gov. George Pataki prefaced a response with: “If I run…”
Or when Sen. Lindsey Graham repeatedly tripped over his words. (“I’m sorry, I can’t talk,” he said.)
Aside from Trump, two other candidates were not accounted for Monday: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who opted not to attend; and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who announced his candidacy too late to qualify for entry.
This article was updated at 8:17 a.m.