CLEVELAND — Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina leveled the first pointed attack at GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump in Thursday’s dual debates, questioning his previous donations to former President Bill Clinton’s foundation and new reports that Mr. Trump and Mr. Clinton spoke before the billionaire businessman announced his candidacy.
“Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?” Ms. Fiorina asked her rivals on stage. “I didn’t. Maybe it is because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
She and six others in the lower tier of GOP presidential candidates, appearing in an afternoon debate ahead of Thursday’s more prestigious prime-time debate with the better-performing candidates, tried to convince voters they belong in the race, insisting they bring outsider’s credentials, deep experience or the right message to surmount the odds and win the race.
Ms. Fiorina pointed out that pundits had doubted President Obama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton could win the White House, while former Sen. Rick Santorum, who was runner-up in national support for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, insisted he can recapture that magic despite a much larger and more formidable field that’s relegated him to the back of the back of 17 major candidates.
“We didn’t start out four years ago at the top of the heap. We were behind where we are today,” he said, insisting that the same message that catapulted him to his surprising Iowa victory in 2012 will gain him space in the field this time, too.
Also on stage were former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
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The candidates didn’t break much new ground, but did sharpen their attacks on Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, with Mr. Jindal calling them closet-socialists and many of them questioning the two leading Democrats’ ability to confront the Islamic State or to lead a coalition that can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
As a group, they also argued that federal funding should be stripped from Planned Parenthood — even Mr. Pataki, who is pro-choice.
He said that he would also support a ban on abortions performed after 20-weeks gestation, but suggested that it is a losing battle to try to reverse the Supreme Court’s Roe V. Wade decision.
“My heart has not changed because I have always been appalled by abortion. I am a Catholic. I believe life begins at conception, but … Roe v. Wade has been the law for 42 years and I don’t think we should continue to try to change it,” he said. “But what we can do is defund Planned Parenthood. And by the way put in place an absolute, permanent ban on any taxpayer dollars ever being used to fund abortions.”
Fox host Bill Hemmer asked Mr. Pataki, who last held office eight years ago, and Mr. Gilmore, who left office in 2002, whether it wasn’t time for new blood in the GOP.
They countered that their experience should be respected, with Mr. Gilmore pointing to his leadership on an anti-terrorism commission and Mr. Pataki saying he managed to cut welfare rolls during his time as governor, and saw his state through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I delivered in the blue state of New York, I will deliver for the American people,” Mr. Pataki said.
The candidates all criticized Mr. Obama’s policies on immigration, but several said the GOP needs to be wary of its own stance.
“So many Republicans, what do they care about? Helping business make profits,” Mr. Santorum said. “I’m looking out for the American worker. I’m the only one on this stage who has a plan that’s actually going to reduce immigration.”
Mr. Jindal, meanwhile, vowed to “do everything” he could to crackdown on sanctuary cities, saying he would push to cut federal funding for cities harboring illegal immigrants and seek to prosecute those who allow it to happen.
The candidates also tried to contrast their records with Mr. Trump, who has soared to the top of the field in polls since he announced his bid two months ago, and will be center stage among the 10 candidates in the prime-time debate following later Thursday.
Mr. Perry mocked some of Mr. Trump’s former stances, questioning how the leader of the GOP presidential field could at one time have supported a government-run health care system for all Americans.
Ms. Fiorina, who jabbed at Mr. Trump, still said he was a sign of the antipathy GOP voters have toward longtime politicians.
“The political class has failed you — that’s just a fact, and that’s what Donald Trump has tapped into,” she said.
But she questioned what principles Mr. Trump would follow to govern, accusing him of flip-flopping on major issues.
“He has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion,” Ms. Fiorina said.
Also prominent, though not part of either debate Thursday, was Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom the candidates accused of dangerous foreign policies, incompetence on the domestic front and little more than a third term for Mr. Obama.
“To all Americans who want a better life, don’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Graham said. “You are not going to get it.”
The Democratic National Committee countered that Republicans didn’t appear to have learned any political lessons from 2012, when Mr. Obama easily defeated Mitt Romney while accusing him of lacking compassion toward the needy, harming immigrants with his opposition to legalizing those in the country illegally, and of waging a “war on women” through his opposition to abortion and to a bill allowing women easier access to sue over pay disparities.
“We could just as easily be watching a debate from four years ago,” said DNC press secretary Holly Shulman. “Repealing the Affordable Care Act, talking about ‘illegals’ without any discussion of a path to citizenship, defunding women’s health, questioning the work ethic of Americans, threatening to send the men and women of our military into indefinite war.”
• Seth McLaughlin and Dave Boyer contributed to this article.