Republicans Spar In Undercard Debate

The low-polling candidates met in an early debate. It was about what you'd expect.

Republican Undercard Debate Aug 15

The seven Republicans who failed to qualify for tonight’s main prime time debate on Fox News Channel faced off four hours before that debate was set to start in a Quicken Loans Arena that was seemingly empty of anyone other than the participants, the moderators, and campaign staff. Out of all of the seven candidates invited to participate in this consolation round, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina seems to have done best, but it’s unclear if it will end up helping her move up into a higher tier in the race:

Seven low-polling Republican candidates all needed to create a breakout moment in Thursday night’s early, undercard Republican debate.

After 80 minutes, it wasn’t clear if any of them had.

The candidate who seemed to do herself the most good was former tech executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the debate, and the only non-politician on a stage full of current and former senators and governors.

Fiorina talked about her experience meeting with foreign leaders, and urged greater cooperation with Israel, and with Arab countries that want to fight the Islamic State. Fiorina said she would personally call Iran’s Supreme Leader on her first day in office, to let him know that the U.S. would insist on tougher inspections of nuclear facilities, regardless of the deal recently negotiated by the Obama administration.

Fiorina said that, under her leadership, people would know “America is back in the leadership business.”

She stood out.

But, in this undercard, it was a low bar. The candidates largely agreed with each other, about wanting to un-do President Obama’s policies on health care, immigration and Iran. The next 10 candidates will likely say something similar.


This early debate, which began at 5 p.m. Eastern, was a first in presidential history, although its participants would probably rather not have been there to participate.

For the first time in the history of primary debates, one party’s presidential field has grown so big–there are now 17 Republicans running–that it couldn’t fit in a single debate. So the lower-polling candidates went first.

Later, at 9 p.m., Trump will go onstage with the nine other leading candidates–appearing, for the first time, with the politicians whose primary Trump has hijacked. Both debates are at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

From the beginning, the debate had a strange air that seemed to emphasize the fact that the six men and one woman would be lucky to still be in the race for President four months now, never mind have any reasonable chance at being the nominee of their party. Right off the bat, each candidate was asked some variation of a question that essentially asked them to explain why we should even pay attention to them given their low standing in the polls. It’s a natural question to ask these candidates, of course, but at the same time it was an odd one to start a debate off with because it essentially asked each of the candidates to justify why they were even there notwithstanding the fact that they had been invited to be there. From there, the debate moved on to a question about the guy wasn’t there, the 600 lb gorilla in the room Donald Trump. Rick Perry used the question as an opportunity to renew some of his the attacks that he has leveled against Trump in the past month, but with somewhat less vigor than before. Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, used the question as an opportunity to tie Trump to Bill and Hillary Clinton and essentially question his Republican bona fides, something that I’m sure will come up in the main debate later tonight. From there, questioning moved on to questions involving ISIS, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration (during which Rick Perry was most assuredly less compassionate than he had been in 2011), Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, the economy, Planned Parenthood, and the issue of Executive Powers and the Executive Orders that President Obama has signed since he became President. The answers were about what you’d expect in a Republican debate, and about what you’d expect from candidates who had obviously been well-prepared by their handlers prior to today. What was missing for the most, though, was anything in the way of the kind of fireworks that we usually see in a political debate, and which usually makes headlines for one candidate or another. As I’ll discuss below, this could mean that the actual impact of this “Kids Table Debate” is far less than what any of these candidates might hope.

Based on my own observations and what I gathered from following others on social media, it strikes me that this debate was by and large and uninspiring dud. There wasn’t anything that happened this afternoon that is going to be considered memorable compared to others past debates, and it’s probable that much of the coverage of this debate will be overwhelmed by the coverage of what happens starting at 9pm tonight. If I was going to pick a “winner” from this lower tier, I suppose it would be Carly Fiorina. For the most part, her responses to the questions were strong, forceful, and hit upon all of the major themes important in a Republican Presidential debate. At least initially, she seems to be getting a lot of positive feedback from conservatives on social media as well, although that is an admittedly small universe of people on whom to base any judgment. Rick Perry also handled himself fairly well, but the ghost of debates past still seems to hanging over him so I’m not sure if this is going to help him. As for the others, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore all basically proved why they are at the bottom of the polls and I doubt that anything they did today is going to change that.

Chris Cillizza agrees:

Carly Fiorina was the only woman on stage at the so-called “Happy Hour” debate on Thursday night. She was also the only one of the seven candidates who made clear that she deserves more attention — and a more prime spot in the debates — as the campaign continues.

From the start, Fiorina was poised and confident. She followed a halting and seemingly nervous answer by Texas Gov. Rick Perry with a fluid riff on why she was running and how she was best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton. And, she closed that first answer with this quotable (and good) line: “The highest calling of leadership is to challenge the status quo and unlock the potential of others. We need a leader who will lead the resurgence of this great nation and unlock its potential once again.”

That poised and confident answer was a sign of things to come for Fiorina. As people like Perry (still not a good debater), South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (why was he so sad???) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (angry much?) struggled, Fiorina shined. She repeatedly hit on her knowledge of the world and foreign policy and, smartly for this Republican audience, went after Clinton on Benghazi.

I suppose it’s possible that Fiorina’s performance today will help her in the polls enough to get her into the main debate in September. A lot of that, however, is going to depend on what happens tonight and in the weeks to come. For one thing, there will obviously be a lot more people watching the prime time debate tonight than there were watching a debate that aired during rush hour on the East Coast and while most people were still at work in the Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones For that reason alone, the impact of this debate will probably be muted just because a lot people didn’t see it. To some extent, the impact of that lower viewership may be muted by social media and news coverage, but it’s likely that there is going to be a lot more social media and news coverage of the prime time debate tomorrow and into the weekend than there will be of this debate of people who polling two percent or less. That could make it difficult for Fiorina to get any benefit out of their performances this afternoon. At the very least, we will have to wait for polling that won’t out for at least another week or ten days to know if she succeeded.

The main debate starts at 9:00pm Eastern. Given the fact that it doesn’t end until at least 11:00pm, I’ll probably be doing to wrap-up post on that one tomorrow morning.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Rick Perry also handled himself fairly well, but the ghost of debates past still seems to hanging over him so I’m not sure if this is going to help him.

    Ronald ‘Raven’?
    Being unable to remember how long he served as Governor?

    He clearly can’t quit his pain medication.

  2. @PJ:

    Yes, the Ronald Raven thing was bad. I suppose what I meant is that, other than Fiorina, Perry did better than any of the other candidates.

  3. steve says:

    ““The highest calling of leadership is to challenge the status quo and unlock the potential of others.”

    She couldn’t do this when she was a CEO, and now we should make her president? Tougher inspections when we will already have daily inspections at all of their facilities? We make them do push ups if their buckles aren’t polished? Run laps with your M-1 over your head (showing my age) if the brass is dirty?


  4. Kylopod says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I suppose what I meant is that, other than Fiorina, Perry did better than any of the other candidates.

    Unfortunately–and I say this with no particular glee–that type of the argument has a certain “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln” ring to it.

    In American presidential debates, it’s far more about avoiding gaffes (or anything that the media can construe as a gaffe) than about finding smart things to say. Even if your overall performance wasn’t bad, a single moment can ruin it all–and often has. Looking over the history of these debates, it’s still striking that most of the really famous moments (Reagan’s “there you go again,” Bush Sr. looking at his watch, Gore rolling his eyes, and so on) have absolutely no substance whatsoever. And the reason they don’t is because the people who act as the ultimate arbiters in these debates–the media–don’t.

    Indeed, the media often seem to go out of their way to avoid a substance-based discussion even when it’s staring them in the face. Take Perry’s “oops” moment. Sure it was hilarious and devastating (I was even a little sympathetic; as a member of Toastmasters I know what it’s like to get a brain fart on stage, though I’ve learned techniques on how to save yourself when it happens), but hardly anyone was commenting on how deranged Perry’s actual proposals were.

    Since “lack of substance” and “the media” are practically synonyms, then maybe it’s no wonder Donald Trump was made for these folks.

  5. edmondo says:

    Carly Fiorina seems to have done best…

    At what point do the other six feel like they are totally embarrassing themselves?

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Well, at least someone over at NRO doesn’t like Trump…..

  7. DrDaveT says:

    Watching the main card now, and the thing that blows me away is the audience response. It’s like unadulterated Republican id out there — all reptilian brain and no prefrontal cortex.

  8. Modulo Myself says:

    Wonder if anybody is going to correct Trump about his July 2004 stance against the Iraq war?

  9. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Very few people at NRO do like Trump. Williamson is just more vociferous in his dislike than others.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    From what I saw (which wasn’t much) Fiorina scored by aggressively attacking Hillary. This seems to reinforce my assessment that she’s running for veep, hoping the eventual nominee will see here as a female ticket balancer also able to play the traditional veep role as attack dog.