Seven Republican primary underdogs downplayed their long political odds Thursday in Cleveland and directed their jabs instead at President Obama and Hillary Clinton, each seeking a break-out in the first of two presidential debates.
All candidates on the Fox News/Facebook stage were united in opposition to the newly struck nuclear deal with Iran, hammering administration policies as they largely avoided tangling with each other.
"The first thing I will do is tear up that agreement with Iran," former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, taking issue with the money freed up if sanctions were lifted. “One of the great challenges that we have, $150 billion is fixing to go to a country that that killed our Marines in Lebanon, that used their weapons to kill our young men.”
Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who analysts afterwards said provided much of the breakout fire power during the forum, said dealing with the aftermath of the Iran deal would be one of her first priorities as president.
“On day one in the Oval Office, I would make two phone calls. The first one would be to my good friend, Bibi Netanyahu, to reassure him we will stand with the State of Israel,” she said
“The second will be to the supreme leader of Iran. He might not take my phone call, but he would get the message, and the message is this: Until you open every nuclear and every military facility to full, open, anytime, anywhere, for real inspections, we are going to make it as difficult as possible for you to move money around the global financial system.”
Almost every candidate on stage took a shot at Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham argued Clinton is too closely tied to the Obama administration's policies to turn the country around.
"She’s not gonna repeal ObamaCare and replace it. I will. She’s not gonna build the Keystone pipeline. I will," Graham said. “She represents a third term of a failed presidency.”
When asked what words describe the former secretary of state, most of the candidates used the words like “untrustworthy,” “divisive,” and “socialist.” Perry got in the zinger – “good at email” – taking a poke at Clinton’s personal email scandal.
All were adamant they would reverse President Obama’s executive orders and policies, including ObamaCare. They also blasted the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same sex marriage and Democrats’ defense of Planned Parenthood in the wake of secret videos showing Planned Parenthood officials talking about the harvesting of fetal organs and tissue for research.
“This is absolutely disgusting,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, “and revolts the conscience of the nation. Absolutely, we need to defund Planned Parenthood.”
The seven candidates, who also included New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, rounded out what had been dubbed the "happy hour" debate.
The candidates on the Fox News/Facebook stage did not qualify for the later prime-time debate. But they did their best to promote their experience, commitment and readiness for the Republican nomination.
“I would say the message that got us the win in Iowa and ten other states is the message that will deliver us,” said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, referring to his 2012 presidential bid showing. He presented himself as not so much an underdog but an outsider, though he spent more than a decade inside the Beltway on Capitol Hill.
“I came as a reformer, I stood up to the good old boy network of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Perry and Fiorina also got in some digs at billionaire Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, questioning his conservative credentials.
“Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask what are the principles by which he will govern?” Fiorina said.
Perry, who saw his presidential aspirations fizzle in 2012 after his infamous "oops" debate moment, was looking for redemption Thursday. At the outset of the debate, Perry said he is prepared.
"Americans are going to see that I'm ready to be that individual," he said. Perry also vowed to secure the border if president and touted his own record in that area.
"I deployed the National Guard," Perry said, recalling how he looked President Obama "in the eye" and said, "if you won't secure the border, Texas will." Perry said he was the only one on the dais that had the experience to do it.
Every candidate on stage, analysts said, had an opportunity to distinguish themselves.
“The way to distinguish yourself is not be personal, but be the most credible, populist, conservative and anti-establishment (candidate),” conservative strategist and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said.
Next up is the prime-time debate at 9 p.m. ET, with the 10 top-polling candidates, based on their showing in the last five national polls. Perry almost made the cut, but now leads the second group with an average of 1.8 percent among the latest polls on Real Clear Politics.
The “second tier” candidate today could be one of the last ones standing tomorrow, as the primary promises to heat up and there is no runaway front-runner.
Trump, who has dominated the headlines and is leading in the polls, still has less than 25 percent of the vote in most surveys. “This is without a doubt the most fluid Republican presidential nomination probably in the history of the party,” Shirley said.
Both debates are hosted by Fox News and Facebook in conjunction with the Ohio Republican Party.