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Here's What To Look For In The GOP's First Presidential Debate


Tonight's the night, after weeks of haggling over polls and who would and wouldn't make the cut for the first Republican presidential debate, 10 candidates will take the stage to go at it face-to-face. Fox News will broadcast the debate from Cleveland later this evening. The seven candidates who didn't make the cut for the main event had their own gathering on the debate stage. NPR's Sarah McCammon is at the press center at the Quicken Loans Arena where all the action is tonight.

And Sarah, it was a really bizarre visual, these seven candidates speaking to a cavernous empty room. It's been nicknamed the happy hour debate, the kids' table. No matter what, it is the second tier.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It is, and in case there was any doubt that this is the second tier, moderators were careful to remind us of that. Nearly every question in the first round was predicated on the fact that these candidates are not doing well in polls. That's why they're in this debate, in this forum. So former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was asked if his moment had passed when he lost the Republican nomination in 2012. The moderators pointed out that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's low approval ratings in his home state are an issue for him. So, you know, being an underdog can have a certain appeal though. And former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina played-up her political outsider status. She referenced a story in The Washington Post this week that said that Bill Clinton had spoken by phone with Donald Trump before Trump entered the race. Here's what she said.


CARLY FIORINA: Well, I don't know. I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn't. Maybe it's 'cause I hadn't given money to the foundation or donated to his wife's Senate campaign.

MCCAMMON: So there, Fiorina managed to slam both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in one deft blow.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, in terms of the issues that came up, a big one over the past few weeks has been funding for Planned Parenthood. How did the candidates take that on?

MCCAMMON: Well, the candidates agree on cutting funding to Planned Parenthood even though federal funding for abortions is already illegal in most cases. Former New York governor George Pataki stands out as a supporter of abortion rights, which is usually a deal-breaker for conservatives in his party. He pretty much held that line.


GEORGE PATAKI: I'm a Catholic. I believe life begins at conception. But as Bill said earlier, Roe v. Wade has been the law for 42 years, and I don't think we should continue to try to change it. But what we can do is defund Planned Parenthood.

MCCAMMON: But he said he would support banning abortions after 20 weeks.

BLOCK: On foreign policy, Sarah, we heard South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham say that he would send U.S. ground troops into Iraq and Syria.

MCCAMMON: Right. And foreign policy has been a big theme. We heard a lot of criticism of the Obama administration's policies on Iran and terrorism. Several candidates, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, and especially South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham who was really running on a foreign policy platform, they promised to take on ISIS. Former Texas governor Rick Perry stressed his experience dealing with immigration and said that nobody in the race has done more to secure the border than he has.

BLOCK: Ok. So the even bigger debate is still to come. The 10 candidates were doing better in the polls, and it does seem that the focus will inevitably be on Donald Trump, who's at the top and will have the center stage.

MCCAMMON: Right. But the moderator of the earlier debate that we just heard, Martha MacCallum, called Trump the elephant that is not in the room right now. So if you follow politics at all, you know that he's been getting a lot of attention and some flak for some of the things he's said - calling Mexican immigrants rapists, calling Rick Perry - saying he was wearing glasses to try to look smart. But Trump's been a little bit more toned down this week and has said he doesn't intend to embarrass anyone at tonight's debate. So there's a lot at stake for his opponents too. You know, before his big moment, before Trump's big moment, a lot of people thought former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would be at the top of the pack, and so this is where they need to stand out tonight and persuade people that they are serious, viable candidates for the nomination.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Sarah McCammon. She is at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, site of tonight's Republican presidential debate, and the pre-debate, the forum of the other candidates.

Sarah thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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