CLEVELAND (CNN) — It took all of 11 minutes for the Donald Trump-bashing to begin — and he wasn’t even on the stage.
The race to become the next Republican presidential nominee kicked off Thursday with seven bottom-tier candidates taking the stage at a sports arena here for the first debate of the 2016 election season, sponsored by Fox News.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who just missed the chance to participate in the prime-time debate of top candidates later in the evening, fielded the first answer about Trump, who has dominated the 2016 GOP race.
“I talked about Donald Trump from the standpoint of being an individual who is using his celebrity rather than his conservatism,” said Perry, who has positioned himself as one of Trump’s biggest antagonists on the trail. “How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single payer healthcare?”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took the next shot: “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton,” Fiorina said, taking a jab at Trump for his recent communication with the husband of the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
It was one of several memorable moments from Fiorina, who delivered an aggressive and polished performance. The evening helped highlight some of her best assets: that she is a seasoned public speaker with smooth delivery, that she is the only woman in the crowded GOP field, and that she is an outsider candidate with the potential to harness the widespread frustration with Washington. So far, she has struggled to boost her poll numbers and raise serious money, but she’s hoping that Thursday night marks a turn in her political fortunes.
Clinton was the other favorite punching bag at the early debate, especially when the moderators asked foreign policy questions. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham urged Americans not to support the former first lady and secretary of state.
“To all the Americans who want a better life, don’t vote for Hillary Clinton. You’re not going to get it,” Graham said.
He also took a more personal shot at her, criticizing her now-infamous comments that she and Bill were “flat broke” after leaving the White House.
“I know the difference between flat broke — apparently she doesn’t,” he said. “Hillary, I’ll show you flat broke. That’s not it.”
As the debate wound down, the moderators asked the candidates to handicap Clinton. The unflattering answers included “not trustworthy” and “secretive,” while Perry quipped that she was “good at email,” a jab at the controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email server while she ran the State Department.
The debate also offered an opening for the candidates to go after President Barack Obama on the divisive issue of immigration. The topic has taken center stage in the 2016 cycle so far, in large part because of Trump’s impassioned — and at times inflammatory — remarks about illegal immigration and strengthening the border.
“I know we have a president who wants to do whatever he wants to do and take his pen and his phone and just tell everybody what he thinks is best,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said, “but the reason America is a great country, the reason is because our compassion is in our laws and when we live by those laws.”
Perry said the U.S. border was “still porous,” and hit Obama for failing to secure the border.
Perry, Fiorina, Santorum and Graham shared the stage at the early evening debate with Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore. Aside from the early swipes at Trump, the seven candidates largely stayed in their lanes, declining to attack their fellow rivals on the stage.
The 5 p.m. debate is just the appetizer before Thursday night’s main course: the prime-time debate at 9 p.m. featuring the GOP’s top 10 candidates.
Trump will take center stage at the main event. It will be unfamiliar territory for Trump, whose early strength has both stunned — and aggravated — establishment Republicans. The later debate will also offer former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush an opportunity to move past a shaky few days that included controversial comments about women’s health care along with an uncomfortable performance at a New Hampshire candidate forum.
Trump has tried to quell expectations, downplaying any preparations ahead of this week. But it’s clear that Thursday night has the potential to be a turning point both for his candidacy and by extension a party that is desperate to win back the White House. National Republicans have at times seemed unsure of what to make of the fact that a former reality TV star with no filter and no obligations to the party has unexpectedly become the GOP’s standard-bearer.
“No one has more to gain or lose than Trump,” said former House Speaker and 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. “Trump can go in there and feel presidential and the average American can say: ‘you know, behind the strong language and the vivid words, there’s a guy that can be in the Oval Office.’ He comes out of there enormously strengthened.”
Trump heads into the debate with a solid lead in the national polls.
A Bloomberg survey released Tuesday had Trump at 21%, handing him a double-digit lead over both Bush, who was at 10%, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was at 8%.
Besides Trump, Bush and Walker, the other candidates on the prime-time debate stage will be Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
A big wild card is which Trump shows up. Will it be the cantankerous, quick-tempered Trump who last month gave out Graham’s cell phone number on national television and mocked Perry by claiming the former Texas governor wears glasses just to look smart? Or will it be a slightly toned down and gentler Trump, who said he wasn’t interested in attacking his competition unless he was first provoked?
“If Donald Trump is allowed tomorrow night to have the conversation that he wants to have, talk about whatever Trump wants to talk about without really being challenged, then he wins the debate,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
The debate will also shed light on whether Trump is taking real steps to brush up on policy.
So far, the real estate mogul has managed to ride high in the polls while making sweeping and grandiose promises, like building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.
But pressed for details on complicated policy issues like health care or financial regulations, Trump hasn’t offered many specifics. Jeff Chidester, a conservative radio host in New Hampshire who advised tea party star and former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, said even the voters who are infatuated with Trump’s style now will want to hear substance at some point.
“What is true in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina is now people want to hear exactly what he’s going to do,” Chidester said. “They want to hear bullet points for policies and I think it could be disastrous for him on Thursday if he doesn’t come out and really show at least a bridge to talking about policy in specific points.”