It was billed as the “happy-hour debate,” but, oh, the humiliation of it. The first formal debate of the 2016 presidential cycle, a 5 p.m. face-off on the Fox News Channel, featured seven candidates who polled too low to get into the main event in prime time. From the very beginning, moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum put these junior-varsity White House hopefuls in their place.
Sure, Rick Perry led the vast Republican stronghold of Texas for 14 years, and the state’s economic record during that period looks, on paper, like a solid basis for a GOP presidential campaign. But Hemmer opened the debate by bringing up Perry’s failed presidential campaign in 2012 and asked why he thought he was ready for the job now.
Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, had to answer for his rock-bottom poll numbers in his home state. If the people who knew him best didn’t support him, the implication was, why should anyone else?
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, was one of the last two Republicans standing in 2012. Hemmer asked him, “Has your moment passed?”
To the extent that a debate built on borderline-contempuous questions could belong to anyone, it belonged to former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.
Sure, MacCallum called her out for comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher while barely registering in the polls. But Fiorina delivered her lines crisply, vowing to “challenge the status-quo and unlock the potential of others.” A question about national security and electronic privacy played to her tech expertise. And by the end of the debate, you had a sense of why, despite her unsuccessful electoral record up to now, at least she thought she could win.
While there wasn’t much interaction among the candidates, Perry paid Fiorina a compliment, saying he wished she, rather than Secretary of State John Kerry, had been negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. (If so, maybe she’d have hamstrung the Islamic Republic by leading it into a problematic merger with Compaq.)
So, let the Fiorinamania begin. Of course, her small victory also highlights the peculiar dynamics facing Republican voters. It wouldn’t take much of an uptick in public support to vault Fiorina, or anyone else on that stage, into the ranks of serious contenders. In a 17-candidate race, it pays to stick around, whatever the indignity.