On Thursday, the prime-time political world will be focused on the 1st GOP Presidential debate, featuring the top 10 Republican candidates. There are, of course, 16 declared candidates for the GOP nomination, meaning that six won’t make the cut for the nighttime debate, hosted by Fox News.
Due to a certain amount of arbitrariness in its threshold for participation in the main debate, Fox News is also hosting a debate “undercard” earlier in the evening for the six candidates who didn’t make the first cut. Airing earlier in the evening, if this mini-debate produces a clear winner, that candidate may get a dramatic boost in national polls.
This debate undercard may be Carly Fiorina’s best opportunity to break out of the crowded field.
In all likelihood, the mini-debate will feature former TX Gov. Rick Perry, LA Gov. Bobby Jindal, former NY Gov. George Pataki, former VA Gov. Jim Gilmore, SC Sen. Lindsey Graham, former PA Sen. Rick Santorum, and Fiorina, former CEO of computer giant Hewlett-Packard.
As a list of “also-rans,” it is a very impressive set of resumes and is evidence of the embarrassment of riches the Republican party faces in this nomination contest. It is hard to imagine even six national Democrats with a plausible claim on their party’s nomination, never mind the 16 currently arrayed before Republican voters.
The Republican debate “undercard” features a wealth of experience and some serious policy accomplishments and innovations. It also features, with the exception of Fiorina, a crowded stage of very typical politicians.
Based on a limited glimpse of most of these candidates at Monday’s surreal forum in New Hampshire, only Fiorina has the chops to break through the clutter of standard talking points.
At media and public appearances throughout the short campaign, Fiorina is one of the few candidates who acts as if the stakes in the election actually matter. She seems to understand that the nation faces serious existential challenges.
“Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘I am not content to manage the decline of a great nation.’ Neither am I,” Fiorina said in her first remarks of the evening Monday. “We need a president who understands the economy, the world, how it works, who’s in it, bureaucracy, how to hold them accountable, cut them down to size, technology.”
She accurately laid the blame for the financial crisis at the feet of both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, who for years refused to reign in the metastasizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. She correctly diagnosed the recently enacted Dodd-Frank law as “crony capitalism.”
Fiorina has also proven to be one of the most effective critics of Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton. She has repeatedly, and adroitly, challenged Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, probably more than the other Republican candidates combined.
Fiorina’s blunt talk on the campaign trail as been overshadowed, to a large degree, by Donald Trump. Trump, who is dominating early national, and many state, polls, also comes from outside the political assembly line. His dominance obscures Fiorina’s equally impressive business record. Considering her business career had to be self-built, unlike Trump’s, her business record is arguably more impressive.
While any candidate for the Republican nomination would prefer to be on the “main stage” on Thursday, the mini-debate could provide the last, best chance for Fiorina to make her case. Many of the “bottom tier” candidates at the main event will likely get lost in the klieg lights of the Trump show.
The other candidates set to participate in the “undercard,” while politically accomplished, don’t seem to have the skills or personality to stand out from each other. By her very nature, Fiorina will look and sound very different from the others on stage with her.
She may be one of the surprise winners of the entire Fox Debate drama.