Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore listens to a question at the New Hampshire GOP's presidential town hall in Nashua, Jan. 23, 2016. Reuters

For the first time since August, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was back on a debate stage Thursday night after qualifying for Fox's undercard contest. But in his first question of the night, he had to defend his nearly invisible campaign and decision not to spend much time in Iowa before the caucuses Monday.

"I have been in Iowa, but this is not the place where I am choosing to begin my campaign. I am beginning my campaign in New Hampshire," he said.

The undercard event before the primetime debate in Des Moines also featured former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The undercard debate included candidates who had at least 1 percent support in one of five recent national polls.

To qualify for the main stage, candidates needed to rank in the top six in an average of five recent national polls recognized by Fox News, or rank high in the top five recent polls in Iowa or New Hampshire. The RealClearPolitics polling average had Donald Trump leading Ted Cruz by 5.7 points in Iowa, but the business mogul decided to skip the main debate after a dispute with Fox. Instead, he was scheduled to speak at a 9 p.m. rally at Drake University in Des Moines as the seven other Republican presidential candidates took part in the final debate before Monday's Iowa caucuses, the nation's first nominating contest.

Gilmore was the Virginia governor from 1988 to 2002. This is his second flirtation with the White House after he formed an exploratory committee to run for president in 2007 but dropped out after a few months. He ran unsuccessfully for an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 2008 and serves as CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington that address both domestic and foreign policy issues. He lives in Virginia.

Huckabee and Santorum have won previous contests in Iowa during their 2008 and 2012 presidential runs. Huckabee won by nine points but seems to be losing to Trump and Cruz thsi time.

"I don't think the message isn't working," Huckabee said Thursday as the undercard debate began, vowing to get rid of abortion and help Americans get jobs. "I just think the message isn't getting out."

Santorum also blamed the media for not mentioning his campaign and helping voters learn about his message. He said the media "was trying to take Iowans out of the process."