Thursday evening’s “undercard” debate among four low-polling Republican presidential hopefuls was marked by harsh jabs at Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and the media.
Fox News Channel moderators Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer put questions to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; and, in only his second debate, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. The debate was held at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, just four days ahead of the Iowa caucus for presidential preferences. Higher-polling candidates will debate at the same venue tonight.
Santorum came out swinging against the media in his first exchange with the moderators. Hemmer asked the candidate, who won the caucus in 2012, edging eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney, if caucus night on Monday would be his “last stand.” Santorum’s campaign has failed to gather substantial support this year.
For that, he blamed the media. He said Fox News had failed to mention his name or those of the other candidates onstage with him in the hour leading up to the debate. “In fact, they listed — they put a poll up from Wall Street Journal/NBC News, they listed the candidates, and they failed to mention I wasn’t listed,” he said. “I got zero, why? Because they — NBC/Wall Street Journal poll never includes my name on the list. … What Iowans deserve is to hear from every candidate on equal footing.”
He also criticized the media as giving excessive coverage to the Republican front-runner, businessman Donald Trump, whom he called an “entertainer.” Trump has said he will skip tonight’s mainstage debate. “The entire lead up to this debate was talking about whether Donald Trump is going to show up for the next debate,” Santorum said.
Fiorina directed much of her ire at the Democratic front-runner. MacCallum asked her about remarks she made in the previous debate about Hillary and Bill Clinton’s marriage, although Fiorina had said earlier she would refrain from personal attacks.
“It wasn’t a personal attack,” Fiorina responded. “I was pointing out the fact that Hillary Clinton will do anything to gain and hang on to power, anything. Listen, if my husband did what Bill Clinton did, I would have left him long ago.”
She also said the former first lady and secretary of State is “probably more qualified for the big house” than the White House. “She has escaped prosecution more times than El Chapo,” the international drug lord, Fiorina added. “Perhaps Sean Penn should interview her.”
Fiorina also took out of context a quote from Clinton, saying, “Hillary Clinton famously asked, what difference does it make how four Americans died in Benghazi?” What Clinton actually said, The Washington Post notes, came in response to a senator’s question about whether there were protests preceding the attack in the Libyan city: “The fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”
Gilmore got in a dig at Clinton as well. On the subject of gun control, he said, “The president and Hillary Clinton are working very hard to change the culture of this country in order to put us in a position where we can’t exercise Second Amendment rights. That's wrong. … When Jim Gilmore’s president of the United States, I can tell you this: Gun control is not going to be an issue. If gun control comes to the president’s desk when I'm president, I’ll veto it as fast as it takes Hillary Clinton to eliminate her emails.”
The four candidates also made several of their usual points, saying President Obama has undermined the military and is not doing enough to fight terrorism (Gilmore noted several times that he’s the only military veteran in the race), denouncing abortion and Planned Parenthood, and talking about the need to return well-paying manufacturing jobs to the United States. Huckabee touted his large number of small donors and railed against Wall Street interests, but he made clear he’s no socialist, which is how Democratic contender Bernie Sanders identifies.
Asked by Hemmer about the significant number of Iowans who say they support socialism, Huckabee said, “I honestly don't understand how anybody with IQ above plant life would honestly think that we would be better off if we let the government have all of the private property and that the government would dole out what they thought we should have.” (Note: No, that’s not what Sanders is proposing.) He added, “I’m not ‘feeling the Bern,’ Bill.”
In his closing statement, Huckabee noted a video he made riffing on Adele’s hit song “Hello.” “I thought it'd be appropriate for me to begin tonight by saying, ‘Hello, Iowa. It’s me.’” He noted his victory in the Iowa caucus eight years ago, and he asked voter to give him another one.
Santorum closed by asking Iowans to “pick the right person, not what the polls say,” and Fiorina denounced the “professional political class” and told voters, “It is time to take our country back.”
Gilmore took a jab at Huckabee and Santorum for their plans to attend Trump’s benefit for veterans after the debate, saying, “I’m not about to go across town tonight to carry the coat for some billionaire. Instead, I intend to run for president of the United States, speak to the issue of this international war and challenge that we’re in. This issue of veterans rights, and the issue of Second Amendment rights, and I ask for your support.”