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Undercard debate may be last chance for low-polling GOP candidates

By Ann Marie Awad   |   Jan. 28, 2016 at 6:58 PM
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DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The four bottom-tier candidates in the GOP field faced off in what could be their last debate Thursday evening.

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., went head to head at 7 p.m. EST, before the prime-time debate two hours later. With the news that the next GOP presidential debate will not feature an undercard debate, the stakes were higher.

Huckabee and Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012 respectively, spoke about how they think they'll fare in the caucuses this year. Santorum railed, going well over his time, to complain about the moniker "undercard debate" and slammed networks for excluding his name from campaign coverage.

Huckabee and Santorum both spoke about their plans to attend Donald Trump's counter-event to benefit veterans later in the night. The event was scheduled the same time as the prime-time GOP debate after Trump bowed out earlier this week. Both candidates insisted they were attending to support veterans. Santorum dodged answering whether he was planning to endorse Trump.

"I'm not doing anything at nine o'clock tonight," he added.

Gilmore, sidestepping a question on his relative campaign absence in Iowa, saw an opening to slam his competitors.

"I'm the only veteran in this race, and I'm not going to any Donald Trump event across town on some faux veterans issue," Gilmore shouted over applause, going on to say he planned to address problems in the Veterans Administration.

Shifting to foreign policy, Fiorina spoke about the immediate threat the Islamic State -- also identified as ISIS -- poses to the United States. She called out President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying, "Climate change is not our most pressing security threat, actually it is ISIS followed closely by Iran."

She went on to bash the Iran nuclear deal.

"Under this president, we're on Iran's side"

Huckabee called for airstrikes against the Islamic State, financial sanctions and taking away the terror group's social media platforms.

When it came to the issue of shrinking government, Santorum vowed to reign in regulations to encourage the return of the manufacturing industry.

"I pledge to cut every Obama regulation, including Obamacare," he said.

Fiorina was reminded by moderators of an earlier promise she had made to refrain from personal attacks and focus her campaign on the issues. During the last debate, Fiorina made a splash by saying "Unlike Hillary Clinton, I actually enjoy spending time with my husband."

Fiorina said the statement was not a personal attack, instead saying Clinton would do anything for power.

"Listen if my husband did what Bill Clinton did, I would have left him long ago," she added.

The audience jeered. Fiorina kept going.

"She's escaped prosecution more times than El Chapo, perhaps Sean Penn should interview her."

After her tear against Clinton, moderators asked Fiorina about a recent court decision to indict the creators of undercover Planned Parenthood videos that purport to show executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Fiorina has discussed the videos at length on the campaign trail, making allegations even the creators couldn't substantiate.

She tripled down on her allegations against Planned Parenthood and vowed to de-fund the group if she became president.

Santorum also touted his anti-abortion record, saying the only thing that kept him from the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., last week was the blizzard that slammed the East Coast.

Huckabee was asked why so many Americans seemed to be "feeling the Bern," referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt. "I am not feeling the Bern," Huckabee responded, saying that he didn't understand how Sanders' democratic socialism appealed to anyone. "You do not make people rich by tearing down those who are providing jobs."

All four candidates in the undercard debate poll at 2 percent or below in Iowa, according to RealClear Politics.

The absence of Donald Trump from the main event cast a shadow on the smaller debate. His counter-event at Drake University to benefit veterans has drawn a challenge from groups supporting Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who said they'd pay $1.5 million toward veterans charities if Trump debates Cruz one on one. Fiorina has offered the same amount for the chance to debate the two front-runners, and has upped the ante; offering $2 million if Trump debated her one-on-one Thursday at his event.

Veterans groups have meanwhile distanced themselves from Trump's event. The Wounded Warrior Project said it was not involved in the event, and VoteVets.org issued a statement saying: "Don't hide from Megyn Kelly behind us."

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America tweeted: "If offered, @IAVA will decline donations from Trump's event. We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts."

Trump's campaign has not said what veterans groups the event is meant to raise money for.

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