Seven Republicans Vie to Be Heard in an Empty Room

The GOP hopefuls excluded from the prime-time debate faced an impossible task in Thursday’s opening-round bout.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Reject seven Republicans from the main debate, invite them into an empty theater, and ask them why they’re failures.

That was the novel approach taken by Fox News to its gathering of GOP also-rans, which took place four hours before the first prime-time debate of the 2016 race. It was an awkward, low-energy affair, featuring four current or former Republican governors, a current senator and a former one, and the sole woman in the GOP race, Carly Fiorina.

The candidates had an almost impossible task from the get-go. The Fox moderators, Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum, began by asking each of the seven, essentially, “Why are you even here?” The responses resembled a résumé-reading, as each of the four current or former governors recited their “track records” of state-level success. Next came—who else?—Donald Trump. How is it possible, the moderators implored, that each of you distinguished public servants could be losing so badly to The Donald?

“I don’t know,” Carly Fiorina, the other business executive in the field, replied. “I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I entered the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?”

It was a decent zinger referencing the news that Hillary Clinton’s husband had called Trump and offered him encouragement earlier this spring. But like almost all attempts at humor or applause lines, it got lost in the vacuum of the empty theater. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who has been tangling with Trump for weeks, reminded viewers of the ephemerality of early frontrunners, noting that throughout 2007, Rudy Giuliani was leading Republican polls. Perry would know: He endorsed Giuliani for the nomination that year. Taking on Trump directly, Perry called out the liberal stances he’s taken over the years. “How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer healthcare?” he asked.

Lindsey Graham did a solid job of turning every question toward his comfort zone of foreign policy, but despite his years of experience with television, he seemed to forget how to smile. His outlook for the country seemed so bleak that, at times, he came off as sad. Rick Santorum and the ex-governors George Pataki and Jim Gilmore, meanwhile, offered all-too-frequent reminders that the pinnacles of their careers now lie a decade or more in the past. Santorum, the runner-up to Mitt Romney in 2012, retained the somewhat populist message he delivered then, while also denouncing the Supreme Court’s “rogue decision” on same-sex marriage and refusing to acknowledge it as the law of the land. “It is not anymore than Dred Scott was settled law to Abraham Lincoln,” Santorum said.

Some pundits have suggested the B-squad debate should be a play-in game, with the “winner” moving on to the main event next time. If that were the case, Fiorina would likely be the consensus choice. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO appeared polished and knowledgeable despite never having held public office, delivering strong statements in opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran and calling on major tech companies to cooperate with the FBI on anti-terrorism cases. Her one stumble came before the debate, when her team apparently left her closing statement on a hotel printer, where it was found and promptly posted on Twitter by Sergio Gor, a spokesman for varsity debater Rand Paul.

If the sheer size of the GOP field was unprecedented, so, too, was the debate format. Fox News couldn’t possibly fit all 17 major hopefuls onto one stage (even 10 is borderline laughable), so it split the first face-to-face contest into two separate events and used their own mysterious mix of national polls to determine who made the cut in prime time. After the final surveys came in, Chris Christie and John Kasich edged out Perry for the last 9 p.m. slot, relegating the former governor of the nation’s second-largest state to lower-tier status.

In the hours beforehand, the debate about the earlier debate centered on what to call it. There was the Kid’s Table Debate—despite the relatively advanced age of most of the participants. Or you could take your pick of sports metaphors: The Undercard, the J.V. Team, or the Bronze Medal Match. Politico went a little meaner, simply calling it “the losers’ debate.” Never one to miss out on the joke, Graham embraced both the absurdity of the set-up and the obvious potential for a drinking game (or two).

Fox News showed some deference to the candidates, simply referring to the first event as “the opening debate” and trying its best to pump up its importance. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a one-time GOP rising star, and longest-of-the-long-shots Pataki and Gilmore rounded out the 5 p.m. debate. Neither Pataki, the ex-governor of New York, nor Gilmore, the ex-governor of Virgina, have held office in nearly a decade, and Gilmore only jumped into the race a few weeks ago, his path to the nomination known— apparently—only to him.

Vying simply for airtime and a chance to play next time with the big boys, the candidates showed little interest in actually debating each other on policy. There was almost no interaction among them, and to the extent the candidates in the pre-game show criticized their opponents, the jabs were directed at the Republicans waiting in the wings. They did, of course, eagerly accept the moderators’ invitation to insult Hillary Clinton (“Not trustworthy,” Fiorina said. “Good at email,” quipped Perry), but they mostly couldn't follow the instruction to do so in two words. And when it came time to describe what they would implement as their first executive order if, by some chance, they were elected, almost all of them said they would begin by undoing as much of the Obama presidency as they could in a day.

It’s not clear if Fox or the Republican National Committee will subject these second-tier dreamers to another B-squad debate in the fall. Perhaps the field will begin to thin out by then, or maybe organizers will come up with a way to liven up the format. They could start, at least, by allowing them a live audience.