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Republicans Throw Punches In Undercard Debate As Graham Finds His Footing

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks during the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on Wednesday in Simi Valley, Calif.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks during the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on Wednesday in Simi Valley, Calif.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham dominated the undercard debate Wednesday night, with witty, passionate jabs against his fellow candidates and to argue for a robust national defense.

It was a change for Graham, who was largely stoic and forgettable during last month's debate. He seemed to make the best of a bad situation — after all, nobody likes being at the kids' table, but that's exactly where he and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New York Gov. George Pataki found themselves again.

Last time, businesswoman Carly Fiornia boosted herself into prime-time and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's flatline performance hurt his cause, and he dropped out Friday. Now, the challenge for Graham will be for the longtime senator to boost his poll numbers — he's currently polling at less than one percent in most polls.

Overall, the debate was feisty — they took many jabs at each other over foreign policy, immigration, fiscal policy and more.

But early on, it was the man who wasn't on the stage — frontrunner Donald Trump — who dominated the conversation. Jindal defended his attacks at Trump, saying in the shadow of the Reagan Library that he wasn't breaking his 11th commandment to not attack fellow Republicans. And every other candidate tried to show they were the adult in the race, instead of the reality TV star.

We liveblogged the roughly 90 minute debate — highlights are below.

7:35 p.m. It's the D.C. outsiders vs. insiders on display now. Jindal is hitting Graham for not doing enough to block ObamaCare, the Iran deal, Planned Parenthood funding and more. Graham begins to lecture Jindal — himself a former House member — about how the three branches of government work. In short, they can't get these things through without a GOP president because they don't have the vetoes to override him.

"I'm tired of telling people things they want to hear," Graham continues forcefully. "The one thing I'm not going to do going into 2016 is shut the government down."

7:20 p.m. Santorum's populist streak comes out — he's the only candidate on the stage to support raising the minimum wage — a 50 cent increase over three years. Remember, Santorum's base isn't just religious conservatives, but blue collar workers too — it's how he won in Pennsylvania.

7:12 p.m. Graham is having a great debate — something even moderator Hugh Hewitt tells him. When he's pressed on working across the aisle, Graham touts his bipartisan credentials — usually not a good thing in a GOP primary, with this zinger: "The first thing I'm gonna do as president — we're gonna drink more."

7:05 p.m. The Kim Davis primary is forming. Santorum gives a passionate defense of her actions, comparing them to a Columbine victim who was a martyr for her faith, and was celebrated for it — reminding religious conservative voters why he was their choice four years ago. Jindal echoes him. But Pataki says if she had worked for him, "I would have fired her." Graham also says she should have followed the rule of law, even if she didn't agree with it. And as for Christians being under attack, he says ISIS wants to kill everyone regardless of their stance on gay marriage: "Whether you're the wedding cake baker, the gay couple, or preacher - radical Islam would kill you all if they could."

6:55 p.m. When pressed about a 14 year-old Muslim student who was arrested for bringing a clock, which officials said looked like a bomb, to school." Jindal tries to flip the question, turning it into a question of religious liberty and invoking Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis who went to jail after refusing to issue gay marriage licenses and other Christian business owners who came under attack also. But Jake Tapper keeps pressing him, and he finally says the boy shouldn't have been arrested.

6:50 p.m. Graham — the only military veteran in this debate — also reminds us why he's, by far, the most hawkish candidate in the debate by reiterating his call for ground troops to fight ISIS. 'We're going to kill every one of these bastards we can find, 'cause if we don't, they are coming here," Graham says. "To those who fought in Iraq, you did your job and Barack Obama wasted it all."The other candidates also seem to also advocate for more ground troops, but no specifics.

6:45 p.m. Graham — who was stoic and somewhat lethargic in the first debate — is back to his jovial, funny self. On immigration he hits Santorum for not leading on immigration when he was in the Senate. "The peanut gallery on this is interesting. I have been trying to solve this problem for a decade."

A big divide emerging between him and Santorum on this though — Graham defending his Senate bipartisan plan — and reminding people that George W. Bush supported reform and won Hispanic voters. Santorum: "We need to win fighting for Americans." Graham: Hispanics are Americans."

Graham also makes a joke about his Senate predecessor, longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond — who did plenty to create new Americans by having seven kids after he was 67. Santorum shoots back: "I have seven kids — I did my part."

Overall, it's the most entertaining exchange of the night. This is the Graham many expected in the first debate, and he's finally shown up.

6:38 p.m. We've finally got our first policy question — on immigration. Jindal defends his immigration plan — to secure the border but to allow, eventually, for a pathway of citizenship. He says it's not amnesty though, but Santorum disagrees. Pataki says he doesn't support citizenship, but some path to legal status.

6:35 p.m. We're 15 minutes into the debate....and every single question has been about Donald Trump. There's been no policy questions, only political by the CNN moderators. Now, it's Pataki who is defending his statement that he wouldn't vote for Trump, which appears to break the "loyalty pledge" the entire GOP field signs. He reiterates it doesn't matter because "Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee. Flat out. Period."

6:30 p.m.: Jindal is first out of the gate, justifying his recent sharp attacks on Trump — which he defends, saying Reagan's "11th commandment" that thou shalt not attack another Republican doesn't apply. "Let's stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican," Jindal says. "He's a narcissist who only believes in himself.

Santorum doesn't bite though — says the personal attacks only embolden Democrat Hillary Clinton.

6:25 p.m.: After a lengthy intro by CNN, we're off. The four candidates each introduce themselves — Pataki invokes Reagan, Graham reminds us of his military service, Jindal hits both Bush and Trump and Santorum reminds us of his conservative credentials.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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