Although the four Republican presidential candidates in Wednesday night’s “undercard” debate are lagging behind 10 of their fellow GOP contenders in the race for the nomination, they largely skipped criticizing opponents in their own party.
Instead, they took aim at the frontrunner on the Democratic side: Hillary Clinton.
“Good god, look who we're running against,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, before unloading on Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is also running for the Democratic nomination. “The number one candidate on the other side thought she was flat broke after her and her husband were in the White House for eight years. The number two guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and I don't think he ever came back.”
Graham joined three of his fellow GOP candidates -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New York Gov. George Pataki -- in the hour-long debate ahead of the main event hosted by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado. The event was the third for Republicans this cycle.
Clinton, who Republicans have criticized for months for keeping a server with her email in her home, quickly became a target.
“Hillary Clinton put a server, an unsecure server, in her home as secretary of state,” Pataki said. “We have no doubt that that was hacked and that state secrets are out there to the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese and others. That alone should disqualify her from being president of the United States.”
Use of the server is under investigation. Clinton has admitted that using it was a mistake but denied doing anything illegal.
The four Republicans, who have all struggled to gain any momentum in the polls, argued that they would be better suited to handle foreign policy than the Democrats, including Clinton, who served as secretary of state for four years in the Obama administration.
“At the end of the day, ladies and gentlemen, the foreign policy of Barack Obama needs to be replaced, and the last person you want to find to replace his foreign policy is his secretary of state,” Graham, who has made national security a centerpiece of his campaign, said. “So to the Chinese, when it comes to dealing with me, you have a clenched fist or an open hand. You pick. The party's over to all the dictators. Make me commander-in-chief and this crap stops.”
Graham also slammed Clinton over a characterization she made of the Veterans Affairs hospital controversy last week, when she said the VA’s problems have “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be.”
“Without national security there is no economic security,” Graham said. “Without the sacrifice of the veteran, all of our hopes and dreams are at risk, just a few days ago, Hillary Clinton said that the problems with the VA are being exaggerated by Republicans. They are not. They are real.”
During the last “undercard” debate, in which the same four men participated, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump featured prominently as a punching bag. This time, though, his name was uttered just three times, and only in passing.
No candidate who has made a habit of criticizing Trump -- Jindal has repeatedly -- has met with success, though, and his absence during this round perhaps reflected a new approach from this opponents.
To qualify for the first debate, Republican candidates had to receive at least 1 percent in a national poll between Sept. 17 and Oct. 21. To qualify for the main stage, candidates had to get at least 2.5 percent in an average of national polls in that same time range.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who is also a candidate for the Republican nomination, did not qualify for either debate.
The CNBC moderators also fit in two light-hearted questions, asking which smartphone app the four used most often (Uber, Fox News and Twitter were cited) and whether the day after the Super Bowl should be made a national holiday.
Santorum and Jindal were all for it, Pataki -- a long-suffering New York Jets fan -- said no, and Graham demurred.