Donald Trump may not have been on stage for the first debate -- but he certainly was in the spotlight.
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The real estate mogul dominated early discussion in the bottom-tier debate on Wednesday night, even though he was slated to appear in the mainstage debate two hours later.
The four bottom-tier candidates -- Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham -- went on to discuss foreign policy, religious freedom, foreign policy and a host of other issues later in the debate after they decried the focus on the current GOP frontrunner.
“Let's stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican,” said Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, who has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the real estate mogul on the campaign trail.
“This is an important election with an enormous number of challenges facing the American people and the first four questions are about Donald Trump,” Pataki, the former governor of New York, complained.
The candidates even argued over whether or not to criticize Trump, who currently leads the polls.
“I think personal attacks, just please one person, Hillary Clinton,” Santorum said. “Donald Trump has every right to run for president as a Republican.”
He added, “The focus of this debate should be on how we're going to win this election and help improve the quality of life for American workers.”
Santorum, Jindal, Pataki and Graham combine to average about 2 percent in national polls since early August.
The debate stage was much less crowded for the “happy hour” debate than it was just a month ago. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was promoted to the big leagues debate, and former Gov. Rick Perry recently ended his presidential bid last week. And former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was not polling high enough to get an invite from CNN.
The four bottom-tier candidates faced off against each other before the more-anticipated top-tier Republican debate slated for 8 p.m. featuring Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and the rest of the crowded field.
Santorum is averaging 0.80 percent in national polls since the first debate, according to CNN. Jindal is averaging 0.56 percent, Pataki at 0.44 percent and Graham at 0.28 percent.
Graham came prepared with his own laugh track, throwing out jokes and quips throughout the second tier fight. As for how he will work across the aisle, “We’re going to drink more.”
“Ronald Reagan did a couple of really big things we should all remember,” Graham said to laughter from the crowd. “He sat down with Tip O'Neil, the most liberal guy in the entire house. They started drinking together. That's the first thing I'm going to do as president. We're going to drink more.”
As for what kind of student he was? Graham joked he “wasn’t the best law student,” adding his time at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California for the debate is “the most time that I've spent in any library.”
Immigration was a big part of the debate, but for Graham it was another moment to break the tension with some humor saying, “Strom Thurmond had four kids after he was 67. If you’re not willing to do that we have to come up with a new legal immigration system.”
Santorum quipped back: “I just want to say, I have seven kids and done my part.”
Later on, Pakati and Santorum went head-to-head over religious liberty and Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses despite several court rulings ordering her to do so.
“I think she should have been fired,” said Pataki. “There's a place where religion supersedes the rule of law. It's called Iran. It shouldn't be the United States.”
But Santorum compared the effort to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the effort against racism. “We have no obligation to condone and accept unjust laws,” he said. “I would argue that what the Supreme Court did is against the natural law, God's law. And we have every obligation to stand in opposition to it.”
The conversation also steered toward Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Texas boy who was arrested after police thought his homemade clock was a bomb. "I don't think a 14-year-old should ever get arrested for bringing a clock to school,” Jindal said.
Meridith McGraw contributed reporting.