CLEVELAND — For seven already-spurned Republican presidential candidates, the moderators began Thursday’s “kids’ table” debate by kicking them while they were down.
Because the Republican field is too large to be squeezed onto one prime-time debate stage, Fox News used national polls to divvy them into the 10-candidate main event and the undercard.
And moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum treated the candidates accordingly, challenging the rationales behind their candidacies — considering they were stuck at 5 p.m.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina noted that past presidents such as Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter trailed badly in the polls at this point in the race. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum pointed out that he won 11 states against Mitt Romney in 2012.
“The reason I did so well last time is not just because of the vision,” Santorum said. “It’s because I have a track record in Washington, D.C. of getting stuff done.”
Quizzed about his low approval rating, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal offered perhaps the best kids’ table mantra — ignore the pollsters.
“I made big changes,” Jindal said, pointing to his slashing of state government. “I think our country is tired of the politicians who simply read the polls and fail to lead.”
Then came the questions about the man not on stage but dominating the presidential discussion right now: Billionaire businessman Donald Trump.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s most aggressive antagonist, who narrowly missed the polling cutoff for the primetime debate, compared Trump with past candidates who surged in summer and wilted by winter. And he went after Trump’s shifting positions over the years.
“How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?” Perry asked.
Fiorina mentioned Trump’s past donations to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign and the Clinton foundation, as well as a Washington Post report this week.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped into the race,” Fiorina said. “Did any of you all?”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., continued to stake his candidacy on a hawkish foreign policy. Anyone who does not want to send thousands of ground troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State, he said, is “not ready to be commander in chief. And you’re not serious about destroying ISIL.”
Former New York Gov. George Pataki pointed out that he was in office during the Sept. 11 attacks and stood out from the pack by being the only one who did not want to outlaw abortion.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, the least-known candidate in the field, tried to list out as many biographical points as possible – such as his service in Army intelligence.
Perry had the most to prove. His 2012 campaign flamed out as a result of meandering debate performances, including the famous “oops.”
Now bespectacled and by his estimation better-studied, Perry talked up Texas’ economic growth and a muscular foreign policy. But he wavered at times.
For example, Perry began his answer on illegal immigration with: “Americans are tired of hearing this debate — want to go to, what are you going to do about illegal immigration? For 30 years this country has been baited with that.”
Perry also said he would have rather had Fiorina negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran than Secretary of State John Kerry. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard took the ball and ran with it, appearing to be the most smooth and forceful of the junior varsity on this day.
While the other candidates swore they would undo the Iran deal, Fiorina seemed ready to deal with it in place. She said the first thing she’d do in office is call Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reassure him and Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni to demand full open nuclear inspections – or else the U.S. will freeze Iran’s funds.
“I hope Congress says no to this deal,” Fiorina said. “But realistically, even if they do, the money is flowing.
“China and Russia have never been on our side of the table. The Europeans have moved on. We have to stop the money flow. And by the way, as important as those two phone calls are, they are also very important because they say this: America is back in the leadership business. And when America does not lead, the world is a dangerous and a tragic place.”
Jindal, Fiorina and Perry all head to Atlanta on Friday for the RedState Gathering, among 10 presidential hopefuls who will be in town this weekend.