LONDONDERRY, N.H. -- Forget emails and immigration: the topic du jour for half-a-dozen Republican candidates Wednesday involved education.
Topping the agenda at a policy forum in the key early-voting state of New Hampshire was Common Core, the school standards program that has become deeply unpopular among conservative voters in the Republican Party.
That hasn’t stopped at least two of the party’s presidential contenders from defending the standards, if not the name itself.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has distanced himself from the phrase “Common Core,” and last week called the term "poisonous.” But he has also previously supported some of its key principles.
“If people don’t like Common Core, fine,” he said in here Wednesday. "Just make sure your standards are much higher than the ones you had before. We can’t keep dumbing down standards."
His Republican opponent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also supports the Obama-backed plan.
“For me, I’m not going to change my position because there’s four people in the front row yelling at me,” Kasich said to forum moderator Campbell Brown.
Later, Kasich was asked if he believed the phrase "Common Core" was problematic.
“Look, did I back away from it?” asked Kasich, rhetorically. “Did I say what I thought?”
The state-based standards program remains unpopular with Republican voters, according to a recently-released survey from nonpartisan research journal “Education Next.”
Just 37 percent of Republicans back Common Core, compared to 57 percent of Democrats.
Support also slid by 15 percent among a second group of respondents who answered similar questions about shared standards but without the term “Common Core.”
"What it's turned into is a program that is being overly influenced by companies that have something to gain - testing companies, textbook companies,” suggested Carly Fiorina.
Three of governors who attended Wednesday’s forum have reversed their support for Common Core, like Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
“The original concept sounded great,” he told NBC News. "Local, voluntary, high-quality standards. Who could be opposed to that? That is not what Common Core is. The reality is, it has become this top-down, one-size fits all approach.”
Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have also evolved in their positions.
Walker described his shift in an interview with NBC.
“A couple years ago, a lot of parents from across my state came to me, raised real concerns,” he said. "We looked into the issue. And in my budget, I put language that now takes out the requirement that school districts have to be a part of Common Core.
The education forum was moderated by former news anchor Campbell Brown, who spent 45 minutes diving into education policy with the six Republican candidates. A similar forum will be held for Democratic candidates in October.
"It's thrilling because it brings a seriousness back to the process, which sometimes feels like entertainment - especially at this particular moment, given one of the candidates - that I think people really appreciate,” she said.
Brown recently launched a non-profit education news website, “The Seventy Four,” named for the country’s 74 million children.
"There are a lot of people who deeply care about this issue, and who want to invest in it, and who want to try to make this an issue in this campaign and put this front and center,” she said, "and they're willing to support journalism in an alternative way.”
The conservative-leaning American Federation for Children, which supports school reform, also backed Wednesday’s summit.
“Everything else has had an opportunity to change and become current based on new development and new innovation,” said Betsy DeVos of AFC. "Education has not yet done that, and we need to see that.”