The One Shocking Issue That No GOP Candidate Mentioned in the First Debate

August 6th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

In what has been described as the "happy hour" debate, the seven Republican presidential candidates who did not make the top-10 cut squared off in Cleveland, Ohio, on Thursday. College affordability was not discussed during the debate, despite the fact that Americans are drowning under $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, forcing millions of young people to put off major life decisions as a result. Nearly 3-in-10 young people said that student loan debt was their biggest financial challenge, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll in June.

In terms of other issues uniquely important to young people, there was also no mention of marijuana legalization, police brutality, and the DREAM act; there was only brief mentions of women's health issues and climate change.

Each candidate is holding out hope that they can overcome the GOP front runners, who will engage in their own primary debate later today. Fox News moderators pressed the presidential hopefuls on a range of issues that the news organization, in partnership with the Ohio Republican Party, determined were important to conservative voters.

The seven candidates were introduced in the following order: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jendal, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and former Virginia Gov. John Gilmore. A Fox New Twitter instant reaction poll reported after the debate said that 83 percent of viewers declared Carly Fiorina the winner. No other candidate tallied more than 7 percent in poll.

In the first round, the candidates were asked to address their former failings—Perry's failed presidential campaign, Jindal's declining approval ratings—and make a case for themselves as prospective nominees. Perry responded to the criticism by emphasizing the job growth that he claimed responsibility for as the former Texas governor. Jindal rejected the notion that unfavorable polls in Louisiana, his home state, demonstrated that he was ill-equipped for a run in the primary race. "America is tired of the politicians who simply read the polls and fail to lead,” he said.

Following the first commercial break, the moderators turned to the subject on everybody's mind in the audience: Donald Trump. Perry said that Trump was running on his "celebrity rather than conservativeness," and Fiorina followed up on that point. She took a jab at Trump for donating to the Clinton Foundation in the past.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, the first debate appeared to function as less of a debate and more of a Q&A session, with limited interaction between the candidates. Instead, each appeared to echo one another, distinguishing themselves by highlighting their personal experiences (in the public and private sector) and how those experience would inform their platforms, respectively.

Perry took the lead when the debate moved to immigration. He recalled a conversation he had with former U.S. President George W. Bush, wherein he made a promise to secure the border. None of the candidates specified their policy position on immigration or addressed the issue of deportation.

One of the recurring themes of the debate concerned the economy. Graham, who was called out for working with the Obama administration on efforts to combat climate change, said that he would make the United States more energy independent without imposing cap and trade measures that he considers damaging to the energy industry. He also said that he would repeal Obamacare and approve the Keystone pipeline deal. Jim Gilmore and other candidates also voiced their support for repealing Obama's historic health care law.

Fielding the same question, Santorum said that he would impose a flat-rate tax, effectively taking a "blow torch" to the IRS. He also suggested that he would defund federal benefit program such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies.

On the subject of the Iran nuclear deal, which every Republican in Congress opposed on the floor, Jindal, Fiorina, and Perry criticized the Obama administration for what they described as weakness on the part of the U.S. "The issue for us is to have a Congress that stands up and says not only 'no' but 'hell no,'" Perry said.

Women's health—specifically as they related to the Planned Parenthood controversy—was briefly considered, with Jindal cautioning against shutting down the government in an effort to defund the nonprofit organization. Graham compared the "war on women" in America to conditions in the Iraq, where he has visited several times. In essence, he denied that there was a legitimate war on women domestically by contrasting the plight of women here to that of women who live under Sharia law.

The moderators challenged former New York Gov. George Pataki for being the only pro-choice candidate on the stage—a criticism that he handled smoothly, discussing his religious identity as a Catholic and how that informed his political platform. Pataki made repeated references to threats posed by terrorists; though it was a talking point for many of the candidates, he emphasized his background in, and commitment to, national security.

For the final round, each of the seven candidates took a turn attempting (with nominal success) to describe Hillary Clinton in two words. Perry's "good at email" comment got some smirks.

And young people—if they bothered to watch the primary pre-game at all—learned little about the candidates' policy positions for issues particularly relevant to their concerns.

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