But Donald Trump, the candidate who has sucked up most of the political oxygen in recent weeks did not attend and he did not come up in the conversations. The real estate mogul has surged in national and state polls, even as he has stoked controversy with remarks criticizing illegal immigrants and questioning Sen. John McCain's military service.
The two-hour session felt like a round of political speed dating that came three days before the first televised debate. Amid all of the policy agreements, the hopefuls sought to stand out with their sharp rhetoric, distinct biographical details and long political resumes.
In perhaps the most searing criticism of the evening, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said he is "fluent in Clinton speak" and accused former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, of lying about her private e-mail server in the same way Bill Clinton misled the country about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared: "I fought and I won," a reference to his move to curb collective bargaining for public employees and his electoral wins in a purple state. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) said he would "make 2016 a referendum on repealing Obamacare." Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) called himself a "different kind of Republican." Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett Packard CEO and the only woman in the GOP race, decried the "political class" and repeatedly said the "status quo" needed to be shaken up. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), pitching himself as a next generation candidate, named dropped Uber and Airbnb, companies popular with younger Americans.
On national security, the candidates assailed President Obama's record, particularly his brokering of the Iranian nuclear deal.
"I think we've let our guard down a little bit," said former Florida governor Jeb Bush, speaking on national security. Seeking to thread a needle but perhaps raising more questions, he said that deploying "special forces" to fight the Islamic State in Syria would be a good idea but argued said he was not sure "boots on the ground" were necessary.
Paul, who re-emphasized his libertarian leanings and his belief that war is a last resort, said that American citizens fighting alongside Islamic State militants should have their U.S. citizenship revoked.
Graham, whose lines were a hit with the crowd, summed up his outlook this way: "A clenched fist and an open hand -- you choose."
Trump skipped the event for several reasons, he said, including a sense that he was not likely to win the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, one of the forum's sponsors. As the forum started, Trump's campaign put out a press release touting him as the "Definitive First Place Candidate in New Hampshire."
A WMUR Granite State poll released Monday showed Trump leading the GOP pack with 24 percent support in New Hampshire. A Monmouth University national poll showed Trump claiming the support of 26 percent of Republicans. His next closest competitor in both surveys was Bush at 12 percent.
Monday's event, dubbed the Voters First Forum, was held on the campus of Saint Anselm College. It was sponsored by news outlets from the early voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, and broadcast on C-SPAN.
Many of the same Republican candidates and Trump are likely to appear in the first debate Thursday night in Cleveland.
On immigration, most candidates called for more muscular border security policies to prevent undocumented immigrants from coming into the country.
"It's like a serious wound -- you want to staunch the flow. And that's not what happening," said former Texas governor Rick Perry.
There were some disagreements exposed in the session. Paul reminded the crowd of his fight against the government's domestic surveillance programs while Rubio argued for robust surveillance to keep America safe. While Cruz suggested that some in his own party have not fought hard enough, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he was "not here to criticize my party."
Paul, Cruz and Rubio appeared at the forum remotely. They opted to stay in Washington to vote to advance a bill to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Cruz reminded the audience of the bill, which was blocked by Democrats, at the top of his remarks.
In the lead-up to Monday's forum, the candidates sought to build some buzz and give themselves some fresh talking points for the week. Bush released a six-point border security and immigration plan that he could use to preempt attacks from his right. Jindal announced that his state was terminating Planned Parenthood's Medicaid's provider agreement.
Aside from Trump, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore were the other major Republican candidates who didn't participate.
Amid all of the partisan barbs Monday night, there were traces of calls bipartisanship.
"Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill saved Social Security by working together after they had a drink," said Graham. "Maybe we need to drink more in Washington."