Going into the second debate, the Louisiana governor has put all his eggs into the anti-Donald Trump basket, trash-talking Trump at events and plainly advertising his disdain—and where and when he’ll next convey it—on Twitter.
At face value, the strategy might look unwise for a low-polling candidate: Why so obviously go after a front-runner and risk alienating voters who find Trump appealing? Jindal, in an interview this week on Fox, suggested his tactic is a matter of principle, that he can’t sit idly by while a nonconservative like Trump traipses around the country.
But his tactic is likely a combination of a few other factors. In attacking Trump, Jindal is showing the same willingness to go to battle that Fiorina was praised for in the first debate (albeit without her composure): If Jindal conveys that he’s willing to take on the big dogs, maybe voters will make him one. It’s also a play for greater name recognition—especially seeing as Trump has punched back on his much larger national platform—showing voters who haven’t sipped the Trump juice that Jindal is on their side.
Or Jindal could also simply be following the Trump model: The mogul’s blustery hypercriticism has worked very well in his favor, so underperforming Jindal might as well give it a shot.
The one-time senator from Pennsylvania was very vocal earlier this summer about his displeasure over Fox’s two-tier debate structure, and it’s unlikely that he feels any differently about CNN’s. But that aside, Santorum looks to be more focused on the ground game than whether his appearance in a TV debate will catapult him to the top. Before last month’s debate, he suggested he won’t be preoccupied by his standing in national rankings—“[i]t is not a national race”—and much prefers a state-by-state rallying of support. Or in the case of Iowa, a county-by-county rallying: By last week, Santorum had visited all 99 this cycle.
Santorum’s preference is rooted in personal precedent: During the 2012 cycle, it wasn’t a singular debate performance that thrust Santorum to the front of the pack. Rather, it was his hyperfocused campaigning in Iowa. As NBC News noted recently, Santorum was toward the bottom in Iowa this time in 2011, but two months after hitting all 99 counties in November 2011, he won the Iowa caucuses. Even if Santorum doesn’t wow the crowd Wednesday night with his policy answers, he can show them that he’s willing to put in the leg work, in some cases literally, to earn their vote.
Lindsey Graham told NBC News before last month’s contest that he’d have a greater “chance” in the lower tier “where there’s not so much noise and gibberish.” On Wednesday, without Perry, Gilmore, and Fiorina, he’ll have even more time on the air to talk policy, and to sell voters on the idea that he can’t be discounted.