Was That the Final Undercard Debate?

Spin room after the undercard debate, Sept. 16, 2015
Alex Swoyer

The underpopulated “undercard” GOP debate – featuring George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and Rick Santorum – might have been the last such event of this primary, according to RNC communications director Sean Spicer.

“I doubt there will be an undercard,” Spicer said of the next debate, scheduled for October on CNBC.

He explained that having two debates made sense with such a large field of candidates, but suggested there probably wouldn’t be as many people still in the race by the end of October.

“Are there still that many number of candidates that justify a second debate on debate night?” Spicer asked during an appearance on CNN. “We need to see where the race stands in the next couple of weeks, and make a decision what’s best for the party, what’s best for the candidates.”

Such pronouncements will no doubt sound ominous to the undercard competitors, and maybe to a few candidates whose position on the main debate stage is beginning to look a bit shaky. It had to happen, though. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus reportedly hasn’t made a final decision yet, but the reasoning Spicer put forth is hard to argue with. There is a point at which keeping the slate crowded does little for marginal candidates, while diluting the Republican brand.

One of the initial undercard competitors, former Texas governor Rick Perry, sized things up and decided to bow out on his own before the second debate was held. Dropping the undercard would be a very strong signal to some of the others that it’s time to pack it in.

Of course, every marginal candidate hopes for a turnaround, and would argue that restricting debate participation makes top-tier status into a self-fulfilling prophecy, an exclusive club policed by media and party leadership rather than voters. The winnowing process in the 2012 primary produced some hard feelings and complaints that candidates doomed by exclusion from the major debates were getting a raw deal from the GOP.

In this year’s contest, the undercard includes the last man standing against Mitt Romney in 2012, Rick Santorum, which has the feel of last year’s losing Super Bowl team failing to make the playoffs. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina gave a surprisingly spirited and funny performance in what might prove to be his last turn at bat, winning some “most improved” plaudits (and a few gasps of “who is this guy?” from those who remember his previous low-key appearance.) It seems harsh to pull the rug out from under the guy after a career-best evening.

George Pataki clearly doesn’t think any of the factors that impelled him to give 2016 a shot have changed. And then there’s Governor Bobby Jindal, who worked long and hard for his shot at the 2016 race – he was putting out detailed policy papers on subjects like ObamaCare repeal years ago, and seemingly has every one of those details committed to memory.

Jindal also displayed a firm grip on what’s driving voters in the 2016 primary, making solid points about overbearing, over-funded, under-performing Big Government and the awful GOP Establishment “surrender caucus” that gives up every fight before it begins, perpetually assuring frustrated Republican voters that they need just a bit more power to make anything happen. He delivered the memorable observation that “immigration without assimilation is invasion.” He has skill and passion… but somehow the big time always seems just outside of his reach.

The problem for the undercard candidates is that even the main debate stage is beginning to collapse under the weight of so many contestants. Consolidation among poll respondents, political heavy hitters, and donors is under way. It’s harsh to conclude that some candidates don’t have a plausible road to the nomination after just a few months and two debates, but it’s tough to see much support cascading past the stronger names further up the roster. Someone already fills every slot the lagging candidates might take, and they’ve demonstrated they’re unlikely to implode (or, in one notable case, seem to be implosion-proof.)

Graham is arguably the most distinctive of the undercard candidates with his intense focus on a major ground war against ISIS, and conviction that without such a war, the battle is coming to our shores. That’s going to be a tough sell to the public, and he doesn’t have enough support from any other quarter to provide a launch pad for a “you’re wrong, America, and let me tell you why” campaign.

If the undercard debates had a single vital purpose, it was to provide a testing ground from which one top competitor might emerge with the chops to take the main stage. At the beginning of the race, a lot of people thought that might be Rick Perry, with his gubernatorial record and much-improved campaign style, but it turned out to be Carly Fiorina. These secondary debates were worth doing, but it appears likely they are done.


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