Forum In N.H. A Warmup For First GOP Debate Of 2016 Race Fourteen Republican presidential hopefuls made for a crowded GOP field Monday night in Manchester, N.H. Donald Trump declined to attend. It wasn't a debate, but rather two rounds of fast-paced interviews with the candidates over two hours. The event took place as some of the participants scramble to make the final cut for the first official debate set for Thursday in Cleveland.

Forum In N.H. A Warmup For First GOP Debate Of 2016 Race

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have reached debate season in the presidential campaign. Of course, when a field is as crowded as the Republican one, you've got to get creative. Later this week, there will be a debate, but some candidates won't make the cut for the main stage. Last night in New Hampshire, 14 candidates took part in something short of a debate. It was a series of interviews. The moderator had to keep a very brisk pace, and the candidates covered everything from immigration to the economy to Hillary Clinton. NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It started with a roll call.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Gov. Jeb Bush.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dr. Ben Carson, Gov. Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina.

GONYEA: Again, this was a forum, not a debate. The format called for two rounds of interviews. The first round featured five-minute conversations. That meant just three or four quick questions. The second round was even faster. The moderator was New Hampshire AM Radio personality Jack Heath. Here he is with Jeb Bush.

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JACK HEATH: Is America doing enough now to prevent another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil?

GONYEA: Bush responded that we've let our guard down a bit. On the topic of ISIS, he said it's a war against Western civilization. Then, Bush was asked about sending ground and air troops to attack ISIS in Syria.

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JEB BUSH: Yeah, I think we need special forces. The idea of boots on the ground, I'm not sure that's necessary. But special forces - embedding our troops and our trainers in the - with the Syrian Free Army.

GONYEA: Three of the candidates joined the forum by satellite, U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio were back in D.C. because the Senate was voting unsuccessfully to defund Planned Parenthood, a big issue in the GOP campaign. Last night, the focus was on civility and not confrontation, at least toward each other. The closest thing to conflict was this on balancing government surveillance with privacy. Here's Sen. Paul.

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RAND PAUL: The information we're capturing indiscriminately on all Americans hadn't caught any terrorists, it hasn't made us safer, but it has damaged our Bill of Rights.

GONYEA: Moments later, during his turn, Sen. Rubio responded.

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MARCO RUBIO: And in my mind, it's not a question of if we're attacked. It's a question of when we're attacked. And when we are, the American people are going to want to know why didn't we know about it and why weren't we able to stop it.

GONYEA: There were a lot of barbs aimed at Hillary Clinton, the most pointed from Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose campaign is struggling to get attention. He brought up an old White House scandal.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: As to the Clintons, I've been dealing with this crowd for 20 years. I'm fluent in Clinton-speak. You want me to translate, Jack? When he says, Bill says, I didn't have sex with that woman, he did.

GONYEA: And this on Hillary Clinton.

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GRAHAM: And when she tells us, trust me, you've got all the emails that you need, we haven't even scratched the surface.

GONYEA: There was one nod to a moment in the 2012 Republican presidential race that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry would like to forget, that time in a debate when he tried to name three government departments he'd eliminate and then couldn't list them. He famously said, oops. Well, last night, he was asked it again.

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HEATH: What specifically, what agencies, would you either eliminate or cut?

RICK PERRY: I've heard this question before.

(LAUGHTER)

HEATH: I thought you might. I thought you might go there.

PERRY: Yeah, I thought you might do it. Listen, I think it's really - when you look at the federal government, obviously, when we talk about the size of it...

GONYEA: Perry talked of his record as a cost cutter, but he did not actually answer the question. Now one final note about a word that did not come up a single time last night, Trump. Donald Trump did not attend, citing as a reason that the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, one of the event sponsors, would never endorse him. But Trump will be there Thursday night when the top 10 GOP candidates in national polling debate one another in Cleveland. That gathering looks to be more combative than things were last night in New Hampshire. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Manchester.

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