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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate At Koch Brothers Forum


Let's hear some early themes of the presidential campaign. Three possible Republican contenders appeared last weekend at a forum. It was organized by the billionaire Koch brothers and moderated by ABC's Jonathan Karl.

JONATHAN KARL: They're usually completely in secret. But this time, they invited me to come out and agreed, as one of the conditions we put on me participating, to make it publicly available to any media organization that asked for the live stream.

INSKEEP: GOP donors attended the forum. So much attention is focused on the money in that room. It's also worth listening to the messages. Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul ended up promoting traditional Democratic concerns like the widening gap between rich and poor.

KARL: Well, the Republicans have a real problem on their hands because the economic record now for the Democrats, by the traditional measures, looks pretty good. Unemployment is way down. You have 7 million jobs that have been added. Gas prices are down. The economy is booming. The stock market's up. But where is the economy not working? And it's in terms of the rising gap between rich and poor, which is undeniable under Obama - wage stagnation for the middle class. These are the issues that Republicans can hit Democrats on. And it's not where they're used to fighting a campaign. So it's going to be interesting to hear Republicans like we heard at this forum talking about the problem of income inequality.

INSKEEP: I also noticed that there was, on some issues, a struggle to contrast themselves with President Obama. Of course, they are strongly opposed to President Obama negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, or some of them are, anyway. But when you began asking questions, things got more complex. You asked Marco Rubio about Senate proposals to impose new sanctions on Iran. And he told you actually the senators that he's talking to are going for something a little bit less.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Whatever deal he cuts, there has to be congressional approval of it. I think we all agree on that. And the second one is sanctions that are put in place. If the deal fails, those sanctions kick in...


RUBIO: ...Which is what the president said he wants to do anyway. So all we're saying is fine. Then let's put it in place so it'll happen the minute the talks end.

KARL: Well, the president also says that the minute you pass that, the deal - the negotiations will collapse. Senator Paul, are you going to support the sanctions bill?

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I think new sanctions now has two problems. And most of all, in fact, all of our allies have said it may break apart the sanctions regime.

INSKEEP: So you have one senator saying, I'm more moderate than you thought I was. You have a second senator saying, I'm actually OK with diplomacy and negotiation. Then the third senator, Ted Cruz, jumps in. He sounds very strong here until you pose a question to him. Let's listen to this.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: The problem is if Iran ever acquired nuclear weapons, I think the odds are unacceptably high that it would use those nuclear weapons either in the skies of Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles.

KARL: But Senator Paul's not endorsing Iran having nuclear weapons. He's saying negotiate with them.

CRUZ: OK. But...

KARL: Senator Paul...

CRUZ: All right. All right. Then negotiate smart because this is the worst negotiation in the history of mankind.

INSKEEP: John Karl, did you end up with a situation where even these three conservative senators ended up saying negotiating with Iran is OK? I would just be doing a better job than Obama.

KARL: To a degree, although I have to say Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio made it clear that they are so distrustful of the government in Iran that effectively, you can't negotiate. So there was a real difference of opinion on this stage here because Rand Paul actually uttered the phrase - which I liked - give diplomacy a chance. Rand Paul kept on coming back to a point that you hear the White House making over and over again, saying, look, if negotiations fall apart, what's our alternative? And in Rand Paul's formulation and in the White House's formulation, the only two real paths beyond that is you either let Iran get a nuclear weapon or you have military action, another war in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Karl of ABC News, thanks very much.

KARL: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.