Let the Sparks Fly: Republican Debate Begins with Attacks on Donald Trump

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George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham at the first round of the CNN GOP debate.

SIMI VALLEY —

Republican presidential candidates quickly attacked front-runner Donald Trump at Wednesday night’s CNN debate.

“Let’s stop treating Donald Trump like he’s a Republican,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said at the beginning of the event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “He’s not a conservative.”

Former New York Gov. George Pataki followed suit.

“Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States,” he said.

The comments came at the first debate of the evening featuring lower-polling candidates. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum joined Jindal and Pataki on stage.

The attacks foreshadow what Trump can expect at 8 p.m. ET when he and 10 other leading Republican candidates face off. Trump, who has dominated the race this summer, is likely to face sustained criticism on multiple fronts and will have to prove he can handle the pressure.

Trump’s impact on the primary race was evident even when he wasn’t on stage. The first part of the so-called undercard debate focused on the question of what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, an issue Trump has made a central part of his campaign rhetoric.

When the conversation turned to the controversial issue of “birthright citizenship,” Graham said there were certain “rich Asians, rich people from the Mideast” that were “bastardizing citizenship.”

Jindal, meanwhile, defended his policy views on immigration, repeatedly asserting that he did not support amnesty.

But while the four candidates traded barbs over numerous issues, there were also calls for the GOP to focus on the ultimate prize of taking back the White House.

“If it is Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders (that becomes president), they’re going to pick people we’re going to disagree with all the time,” Graham said in reference to Supreme Court nominations. “Please understand that we have to win this election.”

Stiff Competition

Trump is suddenly facing stiff competition from retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is surging in the polls. But the prime-time debate could ultimately be a fight between Trump, Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush.

Fiorina, whose breakout performance at last month’s debate helped her land a spot in tonight’s prime-time event, is intent on upstaging Trump. Trump has attacked Fiorina’s business record as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard while she has slammed Trump for being light on substance.

Their sparring intensified over the past week after Rolling Stone published an interview with Trump in which he dismissed Fiorina by saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

Fiorina shot back: “I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.”

Bush may have the most at stake. Despite his $100 million bank account and record as a two-term governor running one of the country’s largest — and most complex — states, Bush is tumbling in the polls.

After a lackluster performance last month, Bush will have to prove that he can turn his troubled campaign around. He’ll do that, in part, by taking on Trump directly after spending much of the summer ignoring his presence.

Bush is already taking a more aggressive stance. In recent interviews and posts on social media, the former Florida governor has repeatedly questioned Trump’s conservative bonafides, slamming the businessman on immigration, health care and taxes.

A new web video released this week from Right to Rise, the pro-Bush, super PAC could preview the type of message he might offer tonight. The video labeled Trump as a candidate “in a very dark place” before presenting Bush as someone who is choosing a “brighter path.”