ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's round two tonight for the sprawling Republican Prudential field. The top tier of candidates are gearing up for their prime time debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. The candidates polling at the bottom of the field have been going at it in the undercard event. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been following the action, and he joins us now. Hiya, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Greetings.
SIEGEL: The man who has become the center of gravity in this campaign, Donald Trump, hasn't taken the stage yet, but he has - his presence has been felt.
GONYEA: Oh, absolutely. Of course, you know, he is very good for ratings tonight on CNN, the network carrying this debate. And so much of the lead in, the buildup has been about Trump. We even saw live footage of his SUV pulling up to the debate site and him kind of getting out and walking across the parking lot. But at the very start of this debate, the moderator, Jake Tapper from CNN - first question - he went to the other candidates and asked them about Trump. Two of the candidates on this early stage, this undercard, took the bait. They went right after Trump. We're going to hear them both back to back here. Here's - first, you get Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and, right after that, former New York governor George Pataki.
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BOBBY JINDAL: Let's stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican. If he were really a conservative and 30 points ahead, I would endorse him.
GEORGE PATAKI: Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States for the Republican Party's nominee.
GONYEA: And Pataki there - he was the second voice you heard - he was asked about his promise to endorse the Republican nominee no matter who it is, even if it's Trump. He wouldn't even entertain the question. He said, I'm going to vote for the Republican nominee, and it's not going to be Trump. So that was the tone of things.
But remember, they're at the Ronald Reagan Library. Ronald Reagan had that 11th Commandment. Do not speak ill of another Republican. Rick Santorum, the former senator, was on the stage. He followed the Reagan rule and said Trump has a right to run, much of a right as anybody in this room; we just have to talk about the issues and beat him that way.
SIEGEL: So these four Republican hopefuls who're at the bottom of the polls talked about Donald Trump. What about some of the issues that they've talked about so far?
GONYEA: Well, immigration, as you can imagine. It's been a big issue in the campaign, a big issue in the debate. And it's like there's a purity test on immigration. They're all pretty tough on immigration, but it's like, how tough are you? Who is the toughest? Lindsey Graham, the U.S. senator who's in this mix and on the stage in this early debate, was part of that so-called gang of eight, that bipartisan group of U.S. senators that worked hard to come up with some sort of an immigration reform plan that could be palatable to different groups. Ultimately, it went nowhere. So - but he talked about that. He defended that position. Governor Jindal said fix the border, period - again, taking a tough line. Rick Santorum said, we're talking so much about these people crossing the border; we have to do what's best for hard-working Americans.
National security - also a big issue. The candidates talked about surveillance and profiling of Arab-American and when is that justified. Governor Jindal turned that question to what he sees as the prosecution of Christians in the U.S. And we got a reference there to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples in her county. Senator Graham then tried to kind of refocus the conversation back on what he thinks really matters.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, you know, Kim Davis - I'm not worried about her attacking me. I am worried about radical Islamic terrorists who are already here planning another 9/11. We're at war, folks. I'm not fighting a crime.
GONYEA: So Robert, there was vigorous back and forth - you know, not a lot of star power on this stage.
GONYEA: These people are relatively unknown to the general public. But it's been vigorous.
SIEGEL: Don, you've been telling us about this undercard, as they call it, the debate among the four Republican candidates who are polling near the bottom. Still to come - the primetime event in which there will be not 10, but 11 candidates, the 11th being Carly Fiorina.
GONYEA: Carly Fiorina will be there. She's earned her way into this top tier by virtue of a strong performance in the first debate six weeks ago. Look for her to take on Trump.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Thanks.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.