The Sorry Seven: How the GOP’s Second-Tier Debaters Can Turn Things Around
Policy + Politics

The Sorry Seven: How the GOP’s Second-Tier Debaters Can Turn Things Around

Being left off the main stage for the first Republican presidential debate has got to sting a little bit, but for the seven Republican also-rans, the hour-long alternative debate to be televised at 5 p.m. on Thursday could be an interesting opportunity.

In the end, being included in the main debate isn’t likely to save the candidacies of some whose appeal is limited – like retired neurosurgeon Ben Caron or Arkansas governor-turned-dubious-diabetes-cure pitchman Mike Huckabee. Neither is being left out going to be enough to kill the candidacies of several of those relegated to the second tier – particularly former Texas governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Related: Are You Ready to Rumble? Here’s the Bracket for the First GOP Debate

It’s even conceivable that what happens in the 5 p.m. debate, if it’s interesting enough, might go some way toward dictating what gets talked about in the main debate at 9 p.m. It’s easy to imagine participants in the main event being asked to respond to an incendiary charge or a particularly unique policy proposal that arose in the smaller forum.

So, how can the candidates best help themselves? Here are some thoughts.

Rick Perry

Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, needs to own the stage on Thursday, leaving no doubt in the viewer’s mind that he is the one fish that’s too big for this small pond. He needs to stay above the fray and hammer home his substantially developed policy positions on financial services reform and economic development. Immigration-related posturing -- particularly yet another recitation of his promise to President Obama that “if you don’t secure the border, Texas will” -- will only make him look smaller.

Rick Santorum

Of the seven, Santorum is the only other candidate who has a credible claim that he really ought to be on the main stage. He placed second in the 2012 GOP primary, winning 11 states and millions of votes. Like Perry, he needs to project confidence and gravitas. Best known as a culture warrior, Santorum does possess significant policy knowledge and could use his brief moment in Thursday’s limelight to remind people that he’s more than a pro-life activist in a sweater vest.

Related: Why the Candidates Left Out of the GOP Debate Might Be Winners After All

Bobby Jindal

The Louisiana governor has struggled to find traction outside his home state, and unlike Perry and Santorum, he has never attempted a national campaign before and has little in the way of a nationwide following. Jindal needs to get noticed and spark some attention nationally before his campaign runs out of steam. This makes him the candidate most likely to try to vault his way onto the next tier by taking a controversial stance or aggressively attacking the current frontrunners.

Carly Fiorina

Fiorina won’t need to make much effort to stand out on the debate stage. By virtue of being the only woman in the race, she’ll pique some interest for that alone. What the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican nominee for the Senate in California does with that interest is what matters. She has positioned herself as the person who can say whatever she wants about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton without being accused of sexism. It’s a thin plank to campaign on – there don’t seem to be too many people hesitant to attack Clinton – so Fiorina needs to use the time she has to demonstrate to potential supporters that she’s not a one-trick pony.

Lindsey Graham

The sitting South Carolina senator has struggled badly in national polling, despite the fact that he’s got more personality and wit than most anybody he’s on stage with. Graham has essentially promised more war in America’s future through a far more proactive campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. National security is Graham’s specialty and he had a long career in the Air Force Reserves; expect him to play up both points in an effort to find a foothold.

Related: Fox’s Debate Plan Is Fairer than It Looks (Barely)

George Pataki

The former New York governor will have been out of public office for just about 10 years when the 2016 elections come around. He’s never run a national campaign before and has kept a very low public profile in his years out of office. Polling in the neighborhood of zero, it’s hard to see what Pataki’s best move really is. He can’t remind voters who he is because most never knew in the first place. For most viewers, this will be tantamount to meeting a brand new candidate.

Jim Gilmore

The former Virginia governor has been out of office even longer than Pataki, having ended his term in 2002. In his last run for elective office, the 2008 Virginia Senate race, he faced another former governor, Mark Warner, and was beaten badly, 65 percent to 34 percent. In his past flirtation with presidential runs, Gilmore has tried to unite the far-right of the party, running as a strong social conservative. He has lots of company in the current field and an almost total lack of name recognition will not help him.

One thing that’s almost certain is that on the main debate stage later Thursday night, one or more of the participants will perform poorly or even flame out spectacularly. It’s not clear that a two-debate format will persist in the campaign beyond this Thursday. But if it does, a good showing by any of the seven also-rans might be enough to get them called up to the big leagues when somebody currently in the top tier gets sent down to the minors.