The most memorable performance in the undercard Republican presidential debate came from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Serving his third term in the Senate and now one of the party’s leading lights on foreign policy, Graham still found himself at the trailers’ table Wednesday night. But he was easily the funniest of the four early-evening debaters and offered something of a split-personality vision: half gloom and war, half cornball humor.
In an otherwise humorless foursome, Graham’s jokes were the night’s most repeated lines. In explaining his call for more bipartisan cooperation, for instance, he harkened back to deals that President Reagan and Democrats struck over a drink: “That’s the first thing I’m gonna do as president. We’re gonna drink more.”
In explaining his position that more legal immigrants were needed to pay into the retirement system as baby boomers retire, Graham used a one-liner about a famous — and infamous — senator from his home state.
“Strom Thurmond had four kids after he was 67. If you’re not willing to do that, maybe we need a better legal immigration system,” Graham said.
And, talking about his plan to allow some illegal immigrants a path to legal status: “You can stay, but you gotta learn our language. I don’t speak it very well, but look how long I’ve come.”
Graham also laid out his desire to fight the Islamic State extremist group with the most colorful language used in the debate so far. “We’re gonna kill every one of these bastards we can find,” he said.
But the other three contestants had memorable moments, seeking to underline one facet of themselves in front of a national audience that they may never have again. For Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, it was his hard-line challenge to Washington Republicans, who he said were caving in the face of Democratic pressure.
“I am tired of the ‘surrender caucus.’ I am angrier at the Republicans in D.C. than I am at the president,” Jindal said. He attempted to embarrass Graham — the only sitting senator on the stage — by asking him why Republicans in Congress didn’t try to eliminate the filibuster in order to block a nuclear deal with Iran. Graham responded that this was not the only fight that Republicans needed to plan for, and that mustering an override veto might be useful against President Obama in the future.
For former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the quality to highlight was his efforts to help blue-collar voters. He rejected the suggestion that the United States should not raise the federal minimum wage, saying a small increase would be valuable to workers: “How we gonna win, ladies and gentlemen, how we gonna win, if 90 percent of Americans don’t think we care at all?”
And former New York governor George Pataki sought to portray himself as a sober, legal-minded Republican centrist. He rejected the contention — from Santorum and Jindal — that Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis should have been allowed to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “If she’d worked for me, I would have fired her,” Pataki said. “There’s a place where religion supersedes the rules of law. It’s called Iran.”
All four of them were hoping to do what former tech executive Carly Fiorina did in the last undercard debate: stand out and leave the others behind. The next debate is not until late October, and its host network — CNBC — has not indicated whether there will be an undercard. That is, if there are enough candidates left to hold one. In the month since the first one, in early August, one of its candidates gave up the fight. Former Texas governor Rick Perry exited the race last week.
Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore didn’t make the cut for Wednesday’s debate: He failed to average 1 percent in any three recent polls.
The four low-polling candidates focused on two figures who were likely to dominate the discussion all night long: Donald Trump and Reagan.
Pataki compared himself to Reagan, the Republican icon whose presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., was the site of both debates.
“When I think of Ronald Reagan, I think of his tremendous smile. A smile that reflected his optimism, and his unending belief and faith in America and Americans,” Pataki said. “That’s exactly the type of leadership we need in Washington today. And that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
In the first question lobbed at candidates, the moderators asked Jindal about his attacks on Trump, the Republican front-runner. Jindal was asked if he had broken Reagan’s famous “11th Commandment,” which was to forsake attacking fellow Republicans.
“Let’s stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican,” Jindal said. “He’s not a conservative. . . . He believes in Donald Trump.”
Santorum promptly disagreed, saying attacks on Trump were a distraction.
“Personal attacks just please one person: Hillary Clinton,” Santorum said, meaning that the Democratic front-runner was benefitting from GOP infighting.
But that was not the end of questions about Trump. The debate hosts continued to press candidates about why Trump, a political neophyte, was beating all of them so badly.
Pataki was asked whether he would vote for Trump, and insisted that he would not have to. “He’s not going to be the nominee. . . . And let me just say one word here. This is an important election with an enormous number of challenges facing the American people. And the first four questions are about Donald Trump” Pataki said, exasperated.
“The fifth one is, too,” said co-host Hugh Hewitt. And he was right.
Pataki did make it into the main debate — when Trump returned the insults.
“I heard Governor Pataki, who, by the way, was a failed governor in New York,” Trump said, “a very seriously failed. He wouldn’t be elected dog catcher right now.”