CLEVELAND (AFP) - Republican White House hopefuls lambasted party frontrunner Donald Trump as a flip-flopper in the opening round of Thursday’s double debate, and warned that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be disastrous for America.
As voters prepared to tune in to see brash billionaire Trump and other top contenders in the evening event – the first major debate of the 2016 presidential race – the candidates in the preliminary afternoon forum sought to make enough of an impression to propel themselves into the top tier.
They offered withering attacks on President Barack Obama’s treatment of the Islamic State group; vowed tougher immigration policy; pledged to toe the conservative line on social issues; and stressed they would shred a nuclear deal with Iran on day one of a Republican presidency.
“Under President Obama and Secretary Clinton, they’re working hard to change the American dream into the European nightmare,” said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, one of seven candidates on stage for the undercard event hours before the main debate.
Six months ahead of the start of primary elections to choose the Republican flagbearer, it is real estate mogul Trump who has taken an unexpected lead in opinion polls.
His unapologetic, off-script style offends some but has set Trump apart from a packed field of candidates who have furiously tried to garner the same level of attention.
Predictably, the knives were out early for Trump at the first of two debates in Cleveland, Ohio.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief, accused Trump of cozying up to the Clintons. And while she acknowledged Trump has risen atop the polls because he has “tapped into an anger” American voters feel about politicians, she slammed him for flip-flopping.
“Since he has changed his mind on (immigration) amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask what are the principles by which he will govern?” asked Fiorina, who appeared sharp and among the top performers in the early debate.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry piled on, saying Trump’s celebrity outshone any conservative credentials.
“How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?” Perry said, recalling Trump’s comments more than a decade ago in which he expressed support for a universal health care system.
The candidates, each looking for a breakout moment that would improve their meager standings in the polls, also focused their ire on Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and former secretary of state.
“She represents a third term of a failed presidency,” Senator Lindsey Graham said.
“Until you change the policies of Barack Obama, we’re never going to grow this economy (and) we’re never going to be safe.”
- ‘A real race’ -
The main debate with 10 candidates takes place at 9pm (9am Friday), and 5,000 spectators are expected.
“We’ve got a real race on our hands,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told Fox News, which is staging the debates.
The Democratic side, he argued, is holding a Clinton “coronation.”
The gaggle of Republican candidates is hardly a “Who’s Who” of well-known political figures of the right.
After Trump and Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and former Arkansas governor turned television host Mike Huckabee are among the few to have drawn much national attention previously.
All eyes will be fixed on the unpredictable Trump, who has made his fair share of controversial comments.
“I probably am the target,” he acknowledged on ABC. “I’ve evolved like a lot of other people. Ronald Reagan evolved, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat and he became a Republican.”
Immigration is a favorite subject of Trump, who has promised to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to stop illegal immigrants.
He sparked a firestorm and offended many Hispanic voters when he said Mexico was not “sending its best” and said the immigrants were bringing drugs and crime to the US.
“He’s saying a lot of the things that everybody thinks and he says them without being embarrassed,” said Brad Roller, in a bar in Cleveland after a campaign event for Senator Marco Rubio.
Democrats have stressed that Trump or no Trump, Republicans differ little on the substance.
“They are outdated, out of touch and out of line, but not out of company,” Democratic National Committee press secretary Holly Shulman said after the first event.
“If you missed the pre-show, these ideas will be on full display again in a few hours.”
The candidates in Thursday’s main debate are: Trump, Bush, Walker, Huckabee; neurosurgeon Ben Carson; senators Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul; and governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio.