“Kids Table” Debaters Try to Earn a Promotion

The four undercard GOP candidates all fought for some much-needed attention.

From left, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday in Boulder, Colorado.
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Oct. 28, 2015, 7:40 p.m.

BOULDER, Colorado—They attacked Obamacare. They vowed to get tough with Russia. They ridiculed Hillary Clinton and called her a socialist. They did all the things that Republicans running for president are supposed to do.

And yet, for the third time in as many months, the lowest-polling GOP candidates Wednesday had their moment in the limelight before the limelights were actually turned on, participating in the third “kids table” debate preceding the main event featuring 10 higher-polling candidates.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal bragged that he was the only one to cut the size of government. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said he had already proven how he can get things done in Washington during his tenure in Congress. Former New York Gov. George Pataki pointed to his ability to work with Democrats.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina held one fist up, one open hand, and vowed to use both to make the world respect America again. “So, to the Chinese, when it comes to dealing with me, you’ve got a clenched fist and an open hand. You pick. The party is over to all the dictators. Make me commander in chief and this crap stops,” he promised.

Whether enough Republican voters were paying attention to make a difference is an open question. The previous two second-tier debates each drew about 6 million viewers, about one-fourth of the number who tuned in for the prime-time events later.

The same four had also shared the stage at the last debate at the Reagan Library in Southern California in September, and in Cleveland in August. Only at that first debate, there had been three others: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

Perry dropped out of the race not long afterward. Gilmore is still running, but is polling so poorly that he hasn’t even been invited to the undercard debates. And Fiorina, thanks to her well-received performance in the first debate, was promoted to the main event—the only candidate to have jumped in either direction.

Graham, who won widespread praise for his strong performance in the September debate, saw no noticeable change in his polling numbers afterward, and none of the four candidates appeared to offer a standout performance Wednesday.

The four candidates are at 2 percent in an average of recent national polls—combined. Of those, Graham is the highest with 1 percent, and Jindal and Pataki are each at 0.2 percent.

The second-tier debate contestants have complained about the value of national polls in deciding who makes which stage, arguing that polls this early are suspect in general, and national polls are particularly meaningless because the candidates are spending much of their time in just the few, early-voting states.

But the four have also done poorly in another important gauge of strength, their fundraising. They have cumulatively raised just over just over $3 million in the three months that ended Sept. 30, and started the final quarter of the year with $2.7 million in the bank.

In contrast, the four candidates with the biggest bank balances—Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio —among them began October with $45 million on hand.

RNC officials nevertheless say the “undercard” event will remain through the final two debates this year: Milwaukee on Nov. 10 and Las Vegas on Dec. 15.

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