CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It was called the “kids’ table,” the “best of the rest,” and the “junior varsity debate.”
But for seven GOP presidential contenders, the forum before the first official Republican presidential debate on Thursday, offered one of the best opportunities for these White House hopefuls to climb out of the lower tier and, perhaps, steal a spot in the Top 10 before the next debate in September.
Here are eight of the most important moments from the debate before the main event:
1. Turning Toward Hillary Clinton
The candidates on stage are all near the bottom of the polls, but that didn’t stop them from turning against the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Carly Fiorina didn’t pull punches during her closing statement.
“To all the Americans who want a better life, don't vote for Hillary Clinton. You're not going to get it,” he said. “She represents a third term of a failed presidency.”
When asked for comment, Clinton's campaign pointed to a poster on the wall:
2. Taking on Trump
Donald Trump may not have been on this stage, but the man dubbed “the elephant not in the room” by one of the Fox News moderators took his share of punches.
“I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” she said. “Maybe it's because I hadn't given money to the foundation or donated to his wife's senate campaign.” Fiorina also wondered aloud what principles Trump would use to govern, citing flip-flops on immigration, healthcare and abortion.
3. Rick Perry’s ‘Ronald Raven’ Moment
"Americans are tired of hearing this debate want to go to 'What are you going to do about illegal immigration”?'" Perry said. "For 30 years this country has been baited with that. All the way back to when Ronald Raven signed a piece of legislation that basically allowed for amnesty for over 4 million people and the border is still not secure."
Perry's campaign insisted he said "Ronald Reagan."
4. Speaking To An Empty Room
The main debate might see a record crowd of 5,000 watching live. But there was almost nobody watching the pre-debate forum.
It wasn’t just a late-arriving crowd strolling in for a double-header. Fox apparently didn’t invite ticket-holders to come at 5 pm, knowing that would mean sitting for six hours by the time the second debate ended.
Candidates weren’t permitted to pack the room with their own supporters. That meant cutaway shots and scattered pictures on Twitter revealed a near-empty room -- not the candidates’ fault, but bad optics for a group trying to gain traction.
5. Why Are You Running?
All of the candidates were asked why they were running. The answers revealed some resumes were dated, with the stage featuring more “formers” than “currents.”
“I would say the message that got us the win in Iowa and ten other states against pretty overwhelming odds is the message that's going to deliver us in this election. We didn't start out four years ago at the top of the heap. We were behind where we were today. But we stuck to our message,” Santorum said.
Jindal was asked a similar question with Martha MacCallum noting in head to head polling against Hillary Clinton in his home state he comes in short.
“So if the people of Louisiana are not satisfied, what makes you think that the people of this nation would be?,” Hemmer asked. Jindal launched into his talking points saying “won two record elections.”
6. Band of Brothers (And A Sister)
Can it be called a debate when the candidates are so well-behaved? The buzzer was scarce as the candidates chose to abide by the rules and avoid swipes at each other -- a rare occurrence, at times, in the world of presidential candidate forums.
The candidates chose to reserve their harsh words for two people not in the room -- Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
7. Lindsey Graham Gets Serious
Longtime South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, among the most hawkish of the field of 17 GOP candidates, laid out exactly what he thinks it takes to be “commander in chief” and how to get “serious” about combating one of the most menacing international threats of the moment: ISIS.
“If you're running for president of the United States and you don't understand that we need more American ground forces in Iraq, and that America has to be part of a regional ground force that will go into Syria and destroy ISIL in Syria,” Graham said, “then you're not ready to be commander in chief. And you're not serious about destroying ISIL.”
Graham, a U.S. Air Force veteran, reinforced his contention that air power alone is not enough to take out ISIS. And he did not mince words, making clear the likelihood that the U.S. will need to put more boots on the ground. “Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat them,” Graham said.
8. Who’s This Gilmore Guy?
The former Virginia governor was the last of the 17 Republicans to join the presidential field and he also may have the lowest name recognition. So, what does he believe?
All of the candidates were asked “how far are you willing to go to root” out the problem of ISIS-inspired threats in the United States.
Gilmore noted he was the chairman of the National Commission on Homeland Security and Terrorism and said “we warned about the 9/11 attack before the 9/11 attack occurred,” adding he was governor of Virginia when the Pentagon was struck on September 11 - and warning that another attack is inevitable.
“What we've warned of is an international guerilla movement that threatens this country. It's going to happen in this country. There are going to be further attacks. We have to be prepared to defend the American people, prepare them for a long war, stand up for the defense of this country, and stand up for the values of this country,” he said.