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.