MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican presidential hopefuls dodged the thorniest issues on immigration Monday, saying the immediate priority is to secure the border while handling the size of legal immigration and final decisions on the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants must wait until enforcement has been restored.
The candidates — pro-choice and pro-life alike — said they would strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood in the wake of undercover videos that seem to show employees of the nonprofit negotiating the sale of fetal tissue parts.
“Planned Parenthood has a basic disregard for human life,” said former New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a pro-choice long shot who was one of 14 candidates to take the stage, either in person in New Hampshire or by video link from Washington, at a forum sponsored by press outlets in some of the early primary states.
Hours earlier, Republican senators tried to pass a bill to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood but could not overcome a Democrat-led filibuster backed by a veto threat from President Obama. But unity on the Republican side for stripping funding suggests the organization will be a focus of the presidential campaign.
Most of the major candidates at the forum, aired nationally on C-SPAN, appeared in some fashion to field questions one by one.
But the broad field made for an unwieldy affair, with candidates cycling through quickly. An aide came to escort them off the stage if they went on too long.
That produced a number of discordant notes and little in the way of clashes — though Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio, both speaking from Washington, where they had just voted on the Planned Parenthood bill, did disagree over the level of government snooping on Americans’ communications.
“I think most of America agrees with me that the president went too far,” Mr. Paul said. “We can catch terrorists, but do it in a targeted fashion and do more collection of information on terrorists, just less on innocent Americans.”
Despite the tricky format, some themes emerged, including a desire to lay claim to being the anti-Washington candidate.
“The political class has let you down,” said former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. “I have a proven track record of challenging the status quo and problem-solving.”
Immigration emerged as a dominant issue for all of the candidates, and there was general agreement on the need to secure the nation’s borders and stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
Mr. Rubio, who just two years ago led the Senate’s push to legalize most illegal immigrants and provide a path to citizenship, backed away from that bill and its “comprehensive” approach, saying he believes immigration must be taken step by step. He said the question of citizenship can be tackled in the future.
“First, we have to prove to the American people that illegal immigration is under control,” he said.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he would make moves to weed out immigrants who have overstayed their visas, a group that is thought to make up a large chunk of the country.
“You go find ‘em, you pick ‘em up and you send ‘em back where they’re from,” Mr. Perry said.
But Mr. Perry was unable to say whether he would cut the level of legal immigration right now, insisting that wait until after the border is secure.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush agreed. He rolled out a border security plan earlier in the day that called for eliminating federal law enforcement grants for sanctuary cities. But during Monday’s forum, he largely ducked a question about the level of legal immigration, saying instead that the type of flow should be altered.
“I think we need to narrow the number of people coming in by family petitioning,” he said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses on the Republican side, took the issue head-on, calling for a 25 percent reduction of low-skilled immigrants coming into the country legally.
“Everyone else is dancing around it. I’m going to stand for the American worker,” Mr. Santorum said.
Monday’s forum was a dress rehearsal for the first official debate of the campaign season Thursday in Ohio, where the top 10 candidates will be on stage for the prime-time affair. The rest will take part in a shorter forum earlier in the day. Both will be aired on Fox News.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, declined the chance to attend Monday’s forum, as did Donald Trump, the front-runner in the polls, who gave various reasons for not attending, including his belief that the Union Leader would not endorse him. Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore entered the race too late to take part.
Moderator Jack Heath of WGIR-AM radio in Manchester, asked the candidates Monday about military veterans issues, the national debt and international terrorism.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said the nation must reform and lower tax rates.
“I am pro-worker, and I am pro-taxpayer,” he said.
Ben Carson promoted health savings accounts and called for replacing the tax code by adopting a flat tax of 10 percent to 15 percent and eliminating all tax deductions and loopholes.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas panned the Iran nuclear deal and vowed to repeal Obamacare if elected. “We will win by painting in bold colors, not pale pastels,” Mr. Cruz said.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio touted the role he played as a chief architect in balancing the federal budget as a member of Congress in the 1990s and said his top priority is “to get us on a road map to get a balanced federal budget to create jobs in America.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for raising the retirement age for Social Security. Mr. Jindal also said the Iran deal was bad for the country.