A Smaller Debate That Offers a Bigger Opportunity

With three fewer candidates on stage, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki will have plenty of air time on Wednesday.

The Happy Hour debate on Wednesday will have four candidates on stage, not seven. (Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic)

For Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki, let’s start this Republican Debate Night with the bad news: You are all still sitting at the kids table. Stuck on the undercard. Not cool enough to join the popular (well, relatively speaking) GOP candidates in prime time.

But now the good news: There’s hope.

The four Republican also-rans who will take the stage at 6 p.m. for Part 1 of CNN’s debate on Wednesday now know that there’s a path out of political oblivion. For inspiration, they just need to look to Carly Fiorina, who seized the opportunity provided by last month’s Happy Hour debate. She performed well, moved up in the polls, and after an effective lobbying campaign against CNN, graduated to the main stage, where she will join 10 other candidates in the much more crowded prime-time contest.

In the Survivor-style race for the Republican presidential nomination, Fiorina was a winner in the first round. She moved up and out of the basement. The clearest loser was Rick Perry, who barely missed the cut for the prime-time debate in August, delivered a middling performance at 5 p.m., saw his fund-raising dry up, and ultimately bowed out of the race late last week. Then there is Jim Gilmore, the longest of the remaining GOP long shots, who now sits in a kind of political purgatory after CNN excluded him for Wednesday’s debate altogether because he can’t even muster 1 percent in the polls. The one-time (long-ago) Virginia governor is an officially-declared candidate for president, but as the Washington Post’s David Farenthold recently observed, he’s barely campaigning for the office. Gilmore says he will live-tweet the debate in absentia. He has 1,400 followers.

Whether for positive or negative reasons, the smaller crowd on the stage for the Happy Hour debate presents a huge opportunity for Jindal, Santorum, Graham, and Pataki. Rather than scrambling for scraps of air-time with six other contenders—or 10 others, at the later debate—they will each have plenty of time over the course of an hour and 45 minutes to introduce themselves to voters and make their case for the presidency. The undercard debate will even be starting an hour later this time around, which could help boost the audience a bit. And the relatively lower-profile stature of the candidates could accrue to their benefit: As Molly Ball notes, the main debate will revolve to a large extent around Donald Trump, and there won't be any outsized personalities on the stage at 6 p.m. (The flip side, of course, is the earlier debate could wind up being a total snooze fest.)

How the lower four will use their ample camera time is the question. Expect Jindal, the Louisiana governor, to take on Trump, who he has called “a madman who must be stopped.” The destroy-Donald strategy didn’t work so well for Perry, but from where he stands in the polls, Jindal just needs the headlines. Santorum has been unable to replicate his surprising 2012 success in a much larger 2016 field. He’s been talking a lot about Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Lindsey Graham’s message is easier to predict: He’ll criticize President Obama’s foreign-policy and the nuclear deal with Iran. And Pataki? He’s focused almost entirely on New Hampshire, but he’s been outflanked there by John Kasich, another GOP governor trying to attract voters who think the party has veered too far to the right. Expect Pataki to keep reminding viewers he was governor of New York on 9/11 and, since the debate is in California, to offer himself up as a candidate who has won three elections in a blue state.

With just four candidates on the stage, the undercard debate may be the more substantive contest on Wednesday, and for each of the contenders, the stakes will certainly be higher: A good performance can result in a better time-slot in October, while a bad one could send them home for good.