By Steve Holland and James Oliphant
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates who did not qualify for a prime-time debate wasted no time in criticizing poll leader Donald Trump on Thursday, calling him a flip-flopper on key issues and too close to Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Seven low-polling candidates squared off at Quicken Loans Arena for an hour-long debate began hours before the top 10 ranking Republicans were due to hold the first major debate of the 2016 presidential race.
The seven, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former New York Governor George Pataki, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, were in search of a breakthrough moment that would help them rise in the polls and give themselves some much-needed momentum.
Trump, the New York billionaire real estate tycoon who has rocketed to the top of the opinion polls, proved to be an easy target for Perry and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina when they were asked about Trump's rapid rise.
Since Trump was appearing at the later event, he was not at the first event to defend himself.
Perry, who has tangled with Trump over how to secure the U.S.-Mexican border, said Trump in the past had expressed support for a so-called single-payer healthcare system, which is a dream for many liberals. Trump now says that as president he would repeal President Barack Obama's signature 2010 healthcare law and replace it.
"How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer healthcare?" Perry said of Trump. "I ask that with all due respect."
He said Trump has been "using his celebrity rather than his conservatism” to advance in the presidential race, but noted that at this early stage of the 2008 Republican presidential race, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was leading the polls, and he quickly faded.
The only woman in the Republican field, Fiorina had a tart response when asked about Trump.
She mentioned news reports that Trump had fielded a phone call from Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, before Trump entered the 2016 race, and that Clinton had urged Trump to play a larger role in Republican politics.
"I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?" she said, looking toward others on stage. "Maybe it's because I didn't give to the Clinton Foundation or give to his wife's campaign."
Hillary Clinton is the front runner for the Democratic Party nomination ahead of the November 2016 election.
Fiorina said that Trump had tapped into Republican voters' frustration with Washington but that as a Republican presidential candidate he had flip-flopped on illegal immigration, on healthcare and on abortion.
"Whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hoped would be resolved, the political class has failed you,” she said. “That’s what Donald Trump has tapped into.”
The seven Republican candidates in the first debate ranked lower in opinion polls than the 10 in the main event.
(Reporting By Steve Holland and James Oliphant; Editing by Howard Goller)