CLEVELAND — The undercard debate between the bottom-dwellers of the 2016 presidential campaign was under-hyped. It still failed to deliver.
With none of the GOP front-runners on stage, there was little incentive for the seven second-tier candidates relegated to the earlier debate to swipe at each other. They wanted to punch up. But the people they hoped to hit weren’t there.
The event proceeded more like a series of mini-speeches filled with chewed-over talking points. For long stretches, there were no interactions between the seven onstage at all. And with no crowd inside the Quicken Arena, no cheering, and no drama, it felt at times like a hollowed-out imitation of an actual presidential debate.
Still, if anyone had a standout performance it was Carly Fiorina. She offered crisp answers on Iran and took an oblique swipe at Jeb Bush for his fumbled remarks on Planned Parenthood, saying the GOP needs a nominee who won’t “stumble before he even gets into the ring.”
She also delivered some of the fiercest critiques of Hillary Clinton, a staple of her campaign.
But overall, the brutal first round of questions from Fox News moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum set the flat tone. They aggressively questioned why these also-rans who missed the prime-time debate were campaigning at all.
“Has your moment passed, Senator?” they asked Rick Santorum.
Fiorina was pressed about comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher: “Given your current standings in the polls, is the Iron Lady comparison a stretch?”
And Rick Perry was told: “You recently said that four years ago, you weren’t ready for this job. Why should someone vote for you now?”
Conservative radio-host Hugh Hewitt, who will be asking questions of the candidates at the next debate in September, criticized the tone on Twitter. “Not loving the question set thus far. Hostile and not crucial to GOP primary voters,” he tweeted.
The format and questions meant that the names of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul went unsaid. Even Donald Trump got only passing mention.
Here are the highlights:
— The moderators wasted no time in asking about Trump’s effect on the race, daring the candidates to criticize the real-estate mogul. Perry said Trump is little more than a “celebrity” who talks a conservative game but supports liberal policies. Fiorina jumped in, mocking Trump for his cozy relationship with the Clintons and accusing him of flip-flopping on issues. “Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care, and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?” Fiorina said.
— Lindsey Graham made perhaps the debate’s most provocative statement, chiming in after George Pataki refused to say whether he would go so far as to place U.S. mosques under surveillance if it meant preventing domestic attacks. A few minutes later, unsolicited, Graham declared: “If I have to monitor a mosque, I’ll monitor a mosque.”
— Perry paid Fiorina an unusual compliment when criticizing the Iranian nuclear agreement, saying: “I would a whole lot rather had Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiation than John Kerry. Maybe we would’ve gotten a deal where we didn’t give everything away.” This, joined with Santorum saying Monday that Fiorina would be a candidate for the $20 bill, suggests that candidates will go out of their way to heap praise on the only female contender in the field.
— Patak”‹i, already a long shot, worsened his odds when answering a question about his “pro-choice” position. When asked whether the recent controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood had changed his heart, Pataki said he is “appalled” by abortion, then added: “Roe v. Wade has been the law for 42 years, and I don’t think we should continue to try to change it.” That comment could extinguish any minuscule chance Pataki ever had to gain a foothold in the nominating race.
— Fiorina gave one of the debate’s strongest answers in addressing the lack of coalition support in the Middle East, criticizing the Obama administration for failing to assist allied forces and governments there. “They are not perfect. I know every one. But they need to see leadership, support, and resolve from the United States of America, and we can help them defeat ISIS.” But Graham, who struck the debate’s most hawkish tone, delivered a forceful rebuttal a few minutes later: “These mythical Arab armies that my friends talk about that are going to protect us don’t exist. If I am president of the United States, we’re going to send soldiers back to Iraq, back to Syria, to keep us from being attacked here and keep soldiers in Afghanistan because we must.”
— At the debate’s conclusion, the faint sound of scattered applause came from the arena. It belonged to a few dozen friends, family members, and staffers to the various candidates. They were the only people allowed to sit in the audience and were asked not to applause or make noise throughout the event.