Trying to keep their dim prospects alive, the four “undercard” GOP presidential candidates vied for the public’s attention and approval last night in a warmup for the far more consequential debate later tonight headlined by billionaire frontrunner Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
The four men who are little more than blips in the national and regional political polls – Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former New York governor George Pataki – all were primed to try to replicate Carly Fiorina’s virtuoso performance in the first second-tier GOP debate in Cleveland August 6.
That performance catapulted the former Hewlett-Packard CEO into the varsity squad for tonight’s main event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, nationally broadcast by CNN. If anyone came close to replicating that feat this evening, it was Graham. He delivered a witty and folksy performance that stood in stark contrast to his dead fish debut in Cleveland last month.
Graham, a military veteran and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has centered his candidacy on national security and the anti-ISIS fight. Yet he eagerly mixed it up with his fellow contenders on immigration, Obamacare, the minimum wage and other issues.
Invoking the library’s namesake, Graham noted even Reagan used to drink with former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, an unabashed liberal, and the two men struck a deal that saved the Social Security system.
“That's the first thing I'm going to do as president: We're going to drink more,” he joked.
But there was a sharp edge to Graham’s performance, and he saved his sharpest salvo for Trump, who Graham thinks is totally out of his depth as a political leader and commander in chief and would take the party to defeat next November.
His final words of the evening berated Trump for saying that he gets most of his foreign policy advice from experts appearing on the Sunday talk shows. And mocking Trump’s bravado in a speech in Los Angeles Tuesday standing before a decommissioned battle ship, the USS Iowa, Graham said: ‘What I heard last night is the Cartoon Network. ‘Ooh, I’m big, I’m strong, we’re going to hit them in the head.’ That’s not foreign policy. That’s a cartoon character.”
The challenge of appearing relevant to a national campaign was great for the four, when the frontrunner wasn’t on stage to confront and who probably could care less what they had to say. As far as Trump is concerned, the name of the game is polling. And because the four challengers are languishing in the cellar with one percentage point or less, they are “losers” who didn’t deserve to be on the same stage as him.
Some, like Jindal, set their sights on Trump early, convinced that they only way they could move up in the public’s consciousness is to get in some good licks against the real estate tycoon and long-time reality TV start.
“I don’t have a famous last name, my daddy didn’t run for president, I don’t have a reality TV show,” he said during his opening statement, also knocking former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Santorum sought to recapture some of the magic that propelled him to victory in nine primaries in the 2012 election. He has put all his chips on the table in attempting to win the Iowa caucus for the second consecutive time, and is the first candidate to visit all 99 counties. But Santorum has had trouble winning back the support of evangelicals, many of whom have moved on to political outsiders like Trump and Carson.
To that end, he mixed it up the most when it came to hot-button social issues, such as the recent Supreme Court rulings upholding Obamacare and same-sex marriage, and defended Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who was recently jailed for refusing to issues marriage license to same sex couples.
Pataki said he thought so and that anyone elected to the Oval Office needs to respect the rule of law.
“We’re going to have a president who defies the Supreme Court?” he asked.
“I hope so!" Santorum replied.
Yet it was Graham who shined, challenging his fellow hopefuls if they agreed with him that the U.S. needs to send 20,000 troops into Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.
On immigration, he nudged the other candidates to come up with a way for legal immigrants to stay in country, if for no other reasons to keep Social Security solvent. He noted that in 1950 there were 16 workers for every retiree and today there are three and predicted that in 20 years there will be two. While the U.S. must secure its borders and prevent dangerous illegal immigrants from being released into society, Graham said, the country needs a rational immigration policy to attract productive people from other countries.
“Let’s pick people from all over the world on our terms, not just somebody from Mexico,” Graham said. He joked that the late South Carolina GOP senator Strom Thurmond had four kids after he turned 67.
“If you’re not willing to do that we’re going to have to come up with a new legal immigration system,” he said. Graham even praised former secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her work on behalf of women in Africa. He added, in a rhetorical slap at the Democratic presidential frontrunner, “Where the hell were you on the night of the Benghazi attack?”
If there was a loser, it was Jindal. Once a darling of the GOP, the governor struggled to explain his stance on immigration and was rebuked hard by Graham when he said Republicans should shut down the government before funding Planned Parenthood. The health organization has been in the spotlight following a series of hidden-camera videos showed officials discussing how they deal with fetal tissue for medical research.
"Bobby, we're running to be president of the United States -- the most important job in the free world," Graham said. "With it comes a certain amount of honesty. I'm tired of telling people things they want to hear that I know we can't do. He is not going to sign a bill that would defund Obamacare. If I'm president of the United States, I wouldn't put one penny in my budget for Planned Parenthood, not one penny. I'm as offended about these videos as you are.
However, “one thing I'm not going to do going into 2016 is shut the government down and taint our ability to win,” he said.
Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore was excluded from the CNN debate because he can’t even muster 1 percent in the poll. Instead, the one-time state executive opted to live-Tweet the debate to his roughly 1,400 followers.