All 7 Candidates in the 'Kiddie Table Debate,' Reviewed
Once you got through Fox News’ late-afternoon cable news advertisements for Liberator Medical’s free catheter sample pack (“looks like a cosmetic product!”) and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher shilling for a hair removal device—not to mention the endless number of helicopter shots of Donald Trump’s private plane—there was an actual debate today. It involved real candidates, including governors of Texas and Louisiana, a senator from South Carolina, and the winner of 2012’s Iowa caucuses. All told, it was sort of a sad little endeavor.
You couldn’t help but feel bad for all seven people on stage. A surprisingly large percentage of the questions from junior varsity moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum were, in one way or another, how depressing it must have been for each candidate to be on the stage at this debate rather than that one. They asked former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina how she felt losing by such a large margin to Trump. They asked former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum if his “time had passed.” Every question for former New York Governor George Pataki seemed to be said through a stifled giggle. The reaction shots of a non-existent crowd—and the total absence of applause—didn’t help. It reminded one of that April baseball game in Baltimore that had no fans in the stands.
This debate’s status as a consolation prize, a good-attendance-award, created a sense of kabuki that suffocated every question and every response; it felt like a dress rehearsal debate, cast with everybody’s understudies. The candidates were all incredibly nice to one another, and why not? What’s the point of attacking someone in 13th place? You can’t punch up when everyone on stage is already down. When you have a debate with no front-runner—and therefore no one to take down—it takes most of the reasons for a debate to exist out of existence. Even the “your answer took too long” buzzer was a gentle beep rather than the aggressive, harsh, he-chose-poorly BUZZZZZ they’re bringing out for the later debate. If they go over time, why rub it in? They feel bad enough that they’re already here.
The lethargic vibe extended to most of the candidates, who were rarely beeped for going too long and never once interrupted anyone else on stage. (The debate still ran 20 minutes long.) In fact, only one candidate, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, even used the extra 30 seconds of rebuttal time allotted to every candidate for every question, which a theoretically aggressive candidate could have shoehorned into his or her favor. It was polite and friendly and a little bored all around. In the end, you found yourself judging the candidates not so much on how they performed, but how well they disguised how little they wanted to be there … and how much they hope not to be back at the kid’s table next month in Los Angeles.
Here’s a look at how each candidate fared under circumstances like nothing they’ve ever faced before, and like nothing they hope to ever go through again.
Easily the most polished of anyone on the stage; you can see why she’s been impressing early audiences, and just how much of a difference she could make if she ever gets promoted to the adult’s table. She was assured and strong throughout, even when she connected Trump to former President Bill Clinton. Moderator MacCallum mocked her for comparing herself to the “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, but if you had no context for either woman and were just tuning in, you could almost see it. She also has the vital political skill of being able to deliver a shiv with a smile, even making an angry phone call to the Supreme Leader of Iran—“on Day One of the Oval Office!”—sound like a phone call you’d look forward to, even while you were shaking. Interestingly: She was the only candidate to consistently reference God. Though should be more careful about where she leaves her notes.
He hasn’t even been in the race a week, so, understandably, he spent his first question just rattling off his biography. He did it a little too fast, though; he actually ran out of factoids three-quarters of the way through his answer, which was a bit awkward. Every question directed toward him had an audible sigh before it, like a Little League coach who has to give an at-bat to every kid, even when they know the other kids are the only ones who can hit the ball. He didn’t embarrass himself, but he didn’t do anything to distinguish himself either, which adds up to a big net negative. Also, his suit looked too big for him.
You won’t find many Republican presidential candidates answering their first question at a Republican primary by going into extensive detail on fossil fuels, but hey, he’s been a senator for a long time. Graham attempted to make up for by turning into the world’s most polite hawk the rest of the way: Graham turned every question after that into a diatribe against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and the need for the U.S. to be aggressive in the Middle East. (No man has ever looked so genteel while vowing to secure the violent deaths of his enemies.) He even batted away a Planned Parenthood question, saying that the Middle East is the real “war on women.” He remains a party attack dog to the end, particularly when it comes to Bill and Hillary Clinton, saying he’s “fluent in Clinton-speak; I’ve been dealing with it for 20 years.” Were you excited to hear the revival of the “definition of what ‘is” is” Clinton chestnut in the year 2015? If so, Graham was here for you tonight.
If anything, he succeeded in being a lot less Kenneth Parcell than in his infamous response to President Obama’s State of the Union, which is a start. It’s still disconcerting seeing such sharp rhetoric coming out of the mouth of such a friendly-looking guy; he says he’s “taking the handcuffs off the military” to go after the Islamic State, but it feels more like the waterboy giving a big speech rather than the coach. (His “Obama and Hillary want to turn the American dream into the European night” felt decidedly un-apocalyptic.) He definitely scores points for being the only person in the debate to go after former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, both a sign of the strength of Trump and the weakness of Bush at this point; two months ago, this debate would have been seven people a race to call Bush the “establishment” the way Jindal, and Jindal alone, did this time. On the whole, though, he spoke the way a lot of voters in his party think, even if he doesn’t seem like the candidate they imagine speaking for them. Also, if elected, he is absolutely going to waste his first executive order, saying, he’d sign one “protecting religious liberty.” Who wants to tell him?
Well, Pataki was here. He hasn’t really done anything, or even been in the public eye, since he was governor of New York, so he kept bringing that up like a middle-aged soft-in-the-middle jock who can’t stop telling you about the time he hit the game winner against Hickory South back in high school. Did you know Pataki was the governor on Sept. 11? Pataki is happy to remind you several times. It was probably wise for him to focus on that, because his handling of the abortion question—he’s the only pro-choice candidate running for the Republican nomination—was muddled, defensive, and weak, though, really, in this primary, and with those recent Planned Parenthood tapes, how could it not be? He was also the only candidate who consistently talked longer than the buzzer. It’s difficult to blame him.
No one knows the perils of a poor debate showing better than Perry, so he seemed determined, almost over-determined, to show off his debate bona fides here. He stiffened his jaw, he dialed back the Texas home-spun-isms, he even threw in a “I’d say HELL NO” for good measure. (To the Ayatollah of Iran, no less, a guy who knows, in conservative minds, from Hell.) He may have been a little too fired up for the room; it’s difficult to be too much of a tough guy when there are more people on stage than in the audience. It was particularly strange to see him go so aggressively after Trump, considering Trump wasn’t in the room; it’s odd to stand up to a guy who doesn’t even need to bother to show up yet. He definitely wanted Trump’s mojo, though. The former governor's answers on immigration were as forceful as anyone said on stage all night, tripling down to the point that he actually claimed his primary purpose in office would be to enforce the fight against illegal immigration, getting into so much detail that he even mentioned specific helicopters. Also: Good to know someone still uses Wite-Out.
Santorum, who was as angry as anyone about these debate rules, went after them even further, pointing out (while inexplicably lapsing into the first person plural) that “we were even further behind four years ago than we are today.” (A salient point for a guy who won Iowa last time.) His answer on immigration—pointing to how his own father, an Italian immigrant, was separated from his father under Mussolini, said “America was worth the wait”—was personal but also underlined that he’s for separating families if it means following the letter of the law. Interestingly, Santorum, the supposed holy roller, didn’t say the word “God” once. He also brought up his “20-20 Perfect Vision of America” plan, which, when it comes to catchiness, isn’t quite 9-9-9.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this misstated the year Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses.