NPR logo At Koch Summit, A Freewheeling Debate Among GOP Hopefuls

At Koch Summit, A Freewheeling Debate Among GOP Hopefuls

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., center, meets with members of the Londonderry Fish and Game Club in Litchfield, N.H., on Jan. 14. Paul was one of three GOP presidential hopefuls who attended Sunday's semiannual gathering of David and Charles Koch's donor network in California. Jim Cole/AP hide caption

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Jim Cole/AP

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., center, meets with members of the Londonderry Fish and Game Club in Litchfield, N.H., on Jan. 14. Paul was one of three GOP presidential hopefuls who attended Sunday's semiannual gathering of David and Charles Koch's donor network in California.

Jim Cole/AP

Three Republican presidential hopefuls declined Sunday night to insult some of the party's biggest donors.

Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, asked by debate moderator Jonathan Karl of ABC News if billionaires now have too much influence in both major parties, agreed that it wasn't a problem — if not exactly for the same reasons.

The senators spoke at a semiannual gathering of billionaires David and Charles Koch's donor network, which underwrites a powerful array of secretly funded political groups. As the GOP presidential competition accelerates, the network is giving signals that it might get involved in presidential primaries for the first time.

Cruz brought up Democratic Sen. Harry Reid's harsh attacks on the Koch brothers in Senate floor speeches last year. Reid, then the majority leader, had called the brothers "un-American."

Cruz said Reid's speeches were "grotesque and offensive." As audience members applauded, Cruz said the Kochs "have stood up for free enterprise principles and endured vilification with equanimity and grace."

Paul called for additional limits on lobbying by government contractors; he didn't say if that also would cover government employee unions. His conclusion: "I haven't met one person since I've been here or as I travel around the country who's come up to me saying, 'oh, I want a contract.' They simply want to be left alone. So I don't fault anybody for that."

Rubio said political spending "is a form of political speech protected under the Constitution," and echoed Paul's view of big donors: "I don't know a single person in this room who's ever been to my office ... asking from government any special access. By and large what they want is to be left alone."

The question of political influence came at the end of a freewheeling debate. Paul supported the administration's decision to lift the Cuban trade embargo; Cruz and Rubio, who fiercely oppose the Castro regime, said the embargo should stay. There was a similar split on Middle East policy: Paul advocated diplomacy, while Rubio and Cruz took more aggressive stands.

They all said the economy either isn't recovering, or is recovering despite Obama administration policies. And they all ranked the income gap as a crucial issue for the Republican agenda.

The forum capped an active weekend of campaigning by GOP presidential hopefuls, none of whom officially has declared. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave a major speech. A platoon of possible candidates addressed a conference in Iowa, where the first presidential balloting will take place next January. Cruz was the only potential candidate to speak in Iowa and at the Koch event in Palm Springs, Calif.

Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a hub of the Koch network, webcast the debate to news organizations — a break from the tight security that kept reporters away from previous Koch gatherings.