There was no Donald Trump but his top issue, illegal immigration, was a dominant theme for 14 Republican presidential candidates who faced off in New Hampshire on Monday night during a crowded and pointed preview of the 2016 primary season's first full-fledged debate.
All but three of the 17 major Republican candidates for president participated in the Voters First Forum in what was essentially a rehearsal debate which — unlike Thursday's nationally televised debate in Cleveland — didn't have a cut-off for participation.
Without exception, the candidates aimed their criticism at Democrats instead of each other in a two-hour meeting where they had more in common than not.
Trump went unmentioned. The billionaire businessman, who launched his presidential bid by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, declined to participate in Monday's gathering.
Monday's meeting offered a prime-time practice round for the GOP's most ambitious, appearing on stage one at a time, who addressed several contentious issues, immigration topping a list that also included abortion and climate change.
None of the candidates on Monday talked of deporting illegal immigrants, a recognition of Republicans' need to appeal to Latino voters who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who may not qualify for the upcoming debate as one of the GOP's top 10 candidates in national polling, called the flow of immigrants crossing the border illegally “a serious wound.”
On those immigrants who have overstayed visas, Perry charged, “You go find 'em, you pick 'em up and you send 'em back where they're from.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum went further, calling for a 25 percent reduction of low-skilled immigrants coming into the country legally.
Monday's participants included seven current or former governors, four senators, a businesswoman, a retired neurosurgeon and one former senator. Two other no-show candidates, Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, and Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor, if they had been there.
Monday's event was broadcast live on C-SPAN and local television stations in Iowa and South Carolina — states that, along with New Hampshire, will host the first contests in the presidential primary calendar next February.
An hour before the forum began, the Senate blocked a GOP-backed bill to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, reviving a debate on social issues that some Republican officials hoped to avoid in 2016.
Three of the four senators participating in Monday's event —Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — did so via satellite from C-SPAN's Washington studio so they wouldn't miss the high-profile vote.
It's a welcome debate for Democrats who see women — married women, particularly — as a key constituency in 2016. Leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would be the nation's first female president, lashed out at the attacks on Planned Parenthood in a web video released before the GOP forum.
“If this feels like a full-on assault for women's health, that's because it is,” Clinton said in the video, criticizing by name former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Perry.
Democrats are also eager to debate Republicans on immigration.
GOP leaders have acknowledged the need to improve the party's standing among Hispanic voters. Yet while many Democrats favor a more forgiving policy that would allow immigrants in the country illegally a pathway to citizenship, most Republicans in the field instead focus on border security.
Rubio, once a lead salesman for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, said Americans want the border fence completed and more border security agents before there's any discussion of what to do with those 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Others offered a softer tone. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said “law-abiding, God-fearing” immigrants should be allowed to stay. Those who break the law, he said, “have to be deported or put in prison.”
Bush who favors comprehensive immigration reform, said limits should be placed on “chain immigration,” the ability of new U.S. citizens to bring in a variety of their relatives from other countries.
Instead, he said, new immigrants should be brought in based on their ability to help propel the U.S. economy into stronger growth.
President Barack Obama injected another contentious issue Monday when he unveiled new emissions limits on power plants designed to address climate change. He called it a moral obligation and warned anew that climate change will threaten future generations if left unchecked.
Walker said, “I want to balance a sustainable environment with a sustainable economy,” Walker said.
Several candidates involved Monday night won't make the cut for Thursday's debate. Those on the bubble include South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former technology executive Carly Fiorina, who charged that Clinton has repeatedly lied during investigations into her use of a private email server and an attack on an American embassy in Libya while she was secretary of state.