CLEVELAND — Before the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign for president, there was the undercard: a match-up of seven GOP candidates who didn’t have the poll numbers to make the main event.
It was a chance for the four current and former governors, a sitting senator from a crucial early-voting state and the GOP’s only female candidate to try for the sort of hit-it-out-of-the-park performance that could vault them back into the top-tier of candidates.
Here are five takeaways from Thursday the pre-debate debate.
Instead of going after one another, the candidates in the pre-debate event focused who wasn’t there: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Trump, the billionaire real estate developer and former star of reality TV, took shots early from Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Hewlett-Packer CEO Carly Fiorina. They both questioned his conservative credentials, pointing to his past support for universal health care and abortion rights.
He is the party’s frontrunner right now, and good for him,” Fiorina said, adding later: “Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal went after Bush by name, rejecting the idea that — as the former Florida governor has suggested — Republicans need to be willing to lose the primary to win the general election. “Let me translate that for you,” Jindal said. “That’s the establishment telling us to hide our conservative principles to get the left and the media to like us. That never works.”
As for Clinton, the former secretary of state and Democratic frontrunner? South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, “To the people who are dying for a better America, you better change course, and she doesn’t represent the change that we need.”
No Oops Moment for Perry
Perry entered the forum with more to prove than anyone. He just missed making the main event, denying him the chance to show a primetime audience how far he has come since the disappointing 2012 campaign. That first run for the White House more or less ended for Perry when he couldn’t remember the third federal agency he wanted to eliminate during a primary debate, saying only: “oops.”
Perry got the first question on Thursday night and didn’t make any gaffes during the hour-long forum. He appeared confident and well-rehearsed, especially on the issue of immigration, and repeatedly talked about his record as governor of Texas — the nation’s biggest red state.
“This is going to be a show-me, don’t-tell-me election,” Perry said, adding: “And I think that the record of the governor of the last 14 years of the 12th largest economy in the world is just the medicine America is looking for.”
Fiorina Makes Her Mark
Former Hewlett-Packer chief executive Carly Fiorina didn’t have the poll numbers to make the main event, but they could rise after her performance Thursday.
Fiorina painted herself as an outsider prepared to take on the status quo and delivered some of the night’s most pointed barbs against Trump, Bush and Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi. She lies about emails,” she declared in her closing statement, adding that, “We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches.”
Along with potentially convincing a fair number of viewers that she’s the candidate to do it, she also won over one of her on-stage rivals.
“I will tell you one thing,” Perry said of the recently concluded talks with Iran over the Islamic nation’s nuclear program, “I would a whole lot rather had Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiation than John Kerry.”
Graham: Why So Sad?
Graham is known for his deep foreign policy knowledge, but also his biting sense of humor and happy-go-lucky approach to his work in the Senate and time on the campaign trail.
That Graham was missing on Thursday.
Instead, South Carolina’s senior senator was consistently low-key — lacking the energy of Perry’s performance and Fiorina’s commanding stage presence. In one particular downbeat moment, he responded to a question about how he would inspire the nation with a story of family loss.
“When I was 21, my mom died. When I was 22, my dad died. We owned a liquor store, restaurant, bar and we lived in the back,” Graham said. He added later, “Today, I’m 60. I’m not married. I don’t have any kids.”
It’s a story Graham tells often, usually with warmth that endears him to his audience. But without a large audience at Quicken Loans Arena to play to, it didn’t have that kind of effect on this night.
Reaching for Relevance
For several of the contenders, who are barely registering in early national polls, the debate was a chance to stake a claim for relevance in the crowded GOP field.
For former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, it was by calling for strict new limits on legal immigration.
As part of his “pro-worker immigration plan,” he called for reducing the level of legal immigration by 25 percent, claiming that “almost all” the legal immigrants who have entered the country over the last 20 years “are unskilled workers, flattening wages, creating horrible lack of opportunities for unskilled workers.”
None of the others on stage, including New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, had the sort of stand-out moment viewers — and voters — are likely to remember.