By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Donald Trump, will test their messages in New Hampshire on Monday in a pivotal week on the 2016 campaign trail that will be dominated by their first head-to-head debate on Thursday.
Fourteen of the 17 candidates are to face off in Manchester, N.H., for the Voters Issues Forum, a two-hour event at Saint Anselm College in which each candidate will be asked questions by a moderator based on a random draw.
Most of the leaders in the Republican field are to participate, including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, but not poll leader Trump, who declared he would not attend in outrage over an editorial published by the Union Leader, the Manchester newspaper that is one of the sponsors of the event.
The event will allow each candidate to see how they do against each other ahead of the first official Republican debate of the 2016 season, on Thursday night in Cleveland.
The first debate has been controversial because under rules set up by the sponsor, Fox News, and backed by the Republican National Committee, only the top 10 candidates based on an average of recent national polls will be allowed on stage at the 9 p.m. event.
The remaining seven will face off earlier in the day, at 5 p.m., a time when far fewer viewers will be tuning in.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, expected to be one of the top 10, told CNN on Friday that Trump’s rise to the top of the polls reflected a “a temporary sort of loss of sanity, but we’re going to come back to our senses and look for someone serious to lead the country at some point.”
Ahead of the forum, Bush on Monday released a six-point plan to combat illegal immigration that includes offering 11 million undocumented workers “a rigorous path to earned legal status.”
Bush proposed tightening border security through a more pro-active Border Patrol and greater surveillance, as well as a crackdown on both immigrants who overstay their visas and sanctuary cities.
“I am committed to addressing the problem of illegal immigration in a comprehensive fashion so we can respond to the legitimate concerns of the American people and build stronger support for legal immigration,” Bush wrote in a blog on the medium.com website.
Others not planning to attend the forum are former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who entered the race last week.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Bell; Editing by Dan Grebler)
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio arrives at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, United States, July 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young