Seven low-polling Republican candidates all needed to create a breakout moment in Thursday night’s early, undercard Republican debate.
After 80 minutes, it wasn’t clear if any of them had.
The best performance of the early debate came from former tech executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman onstage and the only non-politician in a group of current and former senators and governors.
Fiorina talked about her experience meeting with foreign leaders and urged greater cooperation with Israel and with Arab countries that want to fight the Islamic State. She said that, under her leadership, people would know “America is back in the leadership business.”
She helped herself the most. But in this undercard, that was a low bar. The seven participants were onstage in Cleveland because their poll numbers were not high enough to put them among the top 10, who took part in a prime-time debate several hours later.
At the early debate’s beginning, the candidates awkwardly faced a series of tough questions. In each case, moderators seemed to be asking: Why don’t you just give it up already?
“Has your moment passed, senator?” a moderator asked former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
“If the people of Louisiana are not satisfied, what makes you think the people of this nation should be?” a moderator asked Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal after describing his dismal poll numbers.
“Is it time for new blood?” was the question for former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who hasn’t run for office in more than a decade.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, who had considered but abandoned a presidential bid previously, was asked whether his moment had passed. His answer was a contortion: “I was ready to lead” back then, Pataki said. “But I wasn’t ready to run.”
At another point, the group of seven was asked to say two words about the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In several cases, they failed.
“I’d go with three: ‘Good at email,’ ” said former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, referring to controversy over the former secretary of state’s private server.
“Not the change we need, at the time we need it,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The most pointed moment in the debate came when Santorum compared the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage to one of the most infamous decisions in American history.
Asked whether the same-sex marriage decision was “settled law,” Santorum responded, “It is not, any more than Dred Scott was settled law to Abraham Lincoln.”
He meant the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the court declared that African-Americans could not be citizens. Later, President Abraham Lincoln — during the middle of a Civil War fought over the issue of slavery — issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in defiance of the Scott ruling’s racist logic.
For the most part, however, the undercard candidates did little to move themselves out of the back of the pack.
An hour into the debate, several candidates agreed that they would seek to take federal funds from Planned Parenthood in the wake of a scandal involving hidden videos of that group’s executive. Those seeking to defund the group included Pataki, the only abortion rights candidate on the stage, who said the Planned Parenthood videos had not shifted his overall position on abortion.
“My heart was not changed, because I’ve always been appalled by abortion,” Pataki said. Still, he said, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion has been law for decades. “I don’t think we should continue to try to change it.”
Earlier in the debate, Graham had attacked Clinton, who he said “represents the third term of a failed presidency.”
“To all Americans who want a better life, don’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” Graham said. He also pledged an unusually aggressive approach to foreign threats and Islamic terror groups. “If I have to monitor a mosque, I’ll monitor a mosque. If I have to take down a cyberwall, I will,” he said, as well as saying he might send more American troops into harm’s way to fight groups such as the Islamic State overseas.
Graham — who was asked to talk about something entirely different — then segued into a personal attack on the credibility of Clinton and her husband. In particular, he disputed Clinton’s infamous assessment that she was “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001.
“I’ll show you flat broke,” Graham said. It was not clear what he meant.
Santorum also struck a hard line on immigration, saying that he did not mind breaking up immigrant families if some of their members had come to the United States illegally.
Santorum said his father had waited in Italy while his grandfather worked in America. Later, he said, “I said, ‘Didn’t you resent America for not letting you be with their father?’ ” Santorum said. “You know what he said to me? ‘America is worth the wait.’ “