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GOP candidates (except Donald Trump) appear at New Hampshire forum

Last Updated Aug 4, 2015 10:04 AM EDT

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- Three days before their first sanctioned debate, the 2016 Republican presidential field came together in New Hampshire for a mostly placid forum with few disagreements on the issues.

Fourteen out of 17 GOP candidates participated in the Voters First Presidential forum at St. Anselm College Monday evening - the first - and potentially last - opportunity for voters to compare and contrast the Republican field all in one place.

New Hampshire radio host Jack Heath was the sole moderator, and candidates came onto the stage one at a time to field several quick questions, some submitted by the audience. The format was designed to enable voters to listen to the candidates individually. It may have helped boost name recognition for some of the lesser known candidates, but probably did little to help candidates prepare for Thursday's debate, hosted by Fox News.

The awkward C-Span screen shots of yawning and closed eyes betrayed the boredom of the candidates in the front row, slouching in their seats as they waited for their seven minutes of face time. Candidates often sounded scripted, reciting bits of their stump speeches verbatim, and the sheer number of candidates kept the time for each answer too tight for much follow-up from Heath.

Donald Trump, who leads the pack in recent polls, opted not to attend, saying he would take a pass since he was unlikely to receive the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the sponsor of the forum.

Lindsey Graham woke up the crowd when he attacked Hillary Clinton's credibility by comparing her promises to those of Bill Clinton when he denied having an affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky.

"I am fluent in Clinton-speak. When Bill says he didn't have sex with that woman, he did," Graham told the crowd.

"When she says, 'I'll tell you about building the pipeline when I get to be president,' it means she won't. And when she tells us, 'Trust me, you have all the emails you need,' we haven't even scratched the surface," Graham said.

Carly Fiorina who, like Graham, is also at the bottom of most polls, and likely not to qualify for Thursday's primary debate, stood out as the flash of color in a sea of black and gray suits - and also as the lone female of the group.

While her male counterparts were all asked policy questions during the first round of questioning, Fiorina was fielded questions that seemed oddly geared toward women - focusing on her popularity as a leader, Hillary Clinton's email scandal, and whether the federal government should continue to fund Planned Parenthood.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; and Marco Rubio, R-Florida all appeared remotely by video conference from Washington, where they had stayed to cast votes in what turned out to be an unsuccessful bill to defund Planned Parenthood.

Paul initially misspoke, telling the audience he had been held up because he was trying to repeal Obamacare. He quickly corrected himself during his second round of questioning. Paul also defended his political philosophy, after moderator Jack Heath asked him to compare himself to his "libertarian, contrarian some would call, your dad," who placed second in New Hampshire against Mitt Romney in 2012.

"I'm a constitutional conservative," Paul said. "I think the states ought to be left alone. I'm not eager for war. I'll look at war as something that we have to do on occasion but it should never be the first resort. It should always be the last resort."

"I'm a different kind of Republican. I think we need a new GOP," Paul elaborated. "I have been going to places Republicans haven't been to years."

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked which agencies he'd cut. He joked in response, "I heard this question before," although he declined to reprise his disastrous answer from his 2011 presidential debate performance, in which he struggled to recall the name of the third agency he'd cut if elected. He came up with Commerce and Education, but after some time admitted, "I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops." This time around, he merely said the U.S. needed to cut the government and grow the economy.

Cruz offered the strongest fighting words of the pack regarding the Iran nuclear deal, calling the Obama administration the "single greatest national security threat facing America," and said that if the deal is approved, Secretary of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama were on the road to becoming "the world's leading financiers of radical Islam."

"If this administration is responsible for sending billions of dollars to Iran, and those billions go to jihadists who use that money to murder Americans, Israelis and Europeans, then this administration is responsible," Cruz said.

Jeb Bush called for special forces to combat ISIS and repeated his goal of reaching four percent GDP, and he got one of the few laughs of the evening from the audience when he said that having economist Paul Krugman disagree with him "warms my heart."

Asked whether he differentiated himself from his father and his brother, Bush said that he had a different view than his brother, but of his father, he said, "My dad is probably the most perfect man alive. So It is hard for me to be critical of him." And he continued, a little awkwardly, "In fact, I've got a T-shirt that says, at the Jeb swag store - that says I'm the - I'm the - my dad's the greatest man alive. If you don't like it, I'll take you outside."

The Florida governor also came the closest to taking a jab at the absentee Trump when he thanked his Republican counterparts during his closing remarks, saying, "I'm impressed with the caliber of the people that are running for president. Every person that participated in this debate is better than any of the Democrats running."

CBS News' Face the Nation anchor John Dickerson, who was in Manchester for the forum, wondered whether Bush would repeat that sentiment Thursday.