Some pundits likened the undercard GOP debate in Cleveland, hosted by Fox News and Facebook and held hours before the main event, to being relegated to the kids’ table or put on the junior varsity team.
And for good reason: In a half-empty Quicken Loan Arena, the seven candidates who did not make the cut for the 9 p.m. prime-time event, on the basis of their averages in recent polling, found themselves in a scrappy and oddly subdued fight to prove their relevancy rather than locked in a grand battle of ideas with their fellow B-listers.
Fox News moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum did not hesitate to go for the jugular in the first round, more or less asking each of the contenders how they could conceive of winning the nomination in a 17-candidate field in which they were bringing up the rear.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who tanked his presidential chances in 2012 with a disastrous debate performance, said he was more prepared this time — no “oops” moments in sight, he promised. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina cited nominees like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama who did not break through until later in the nominating process. Former New York Gov. George Pataki, who has not been in office for nearly a decade, said his eight years in the private sector was an asset, although his name recognition prospects look markedly poor.
The competitors took hardly any shots at one another, instead reserving their sharpest barbs for billionaire businessman and GOP front-runner Donald Trump, with Fiorina perhaps landing the best blow.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?” Fiorina said, referring to reports that the former president and husband of the Democratic front-runner encouraged Trump to run. “Maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
The rest of the scheduled hourlong debate was primarily devoted to serving up a steady buffet of conservative red meat at a brisk clip.
Asked what they would say to a family of undocumented immigrants at risk of being broken apart because of their proposed immigration policies, former Perry spoke of strategic fencing, aviation assets from Brownsville, Texas, to Tijuana, Mexico, and increased personnel at the border.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, asked if the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage was settled law, answered, “It is not, any more than Dred Scott was settled law to Abraham Lincoln,” referring to the 1857 Supreme Court decision that held that under the U.S. Constitution, slaves were property, not people.
And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham found a way to address nearly every topic, no matter what its content, by vowing to send ground troops to the Middle East in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“Do we all agree that ISIL is not the JV team? If I have to monitor a mosque, I’ll monitor a mosque,” Graham said, in response to a query about how he would discourage Americans from accepting government assistance. “If I have to take down a cyberwall, I’ll take it. If I have to send more American troops to protect us here, I will do it.”
Some analysts have urged the Republican Party to present a softer, kinder image and may have frowned on such heated rhetoric. For better or worse, there were few audience members around to pay attention to the happy-hour round.