Debates

5 Takeaways From Tonight's GOP Undercard Debate

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Tonight's first presidential debate featured the seven GOP presidential candidates who didn't make the cut for the 9 p.m. prime-time debate. It was a sort of kids' table for Republican presidential wannabes—and it felt like it.

By and large, there wasn't much actual debating going on. Instead of engaging with each other, the candidates were determined to introduce themselves, in basic terms, to the Fox News audience. The winner on this front, most watchers seemed to agree, was, as Robby Soave already noted, former HP exec Carly Fiorina, who came off as competent, collected, and capable. 

Still, the whole thing felt less like a debate and more a nationally televised political speed date.

But we did get a sense of the priorities and interests, at least for the field's lower-tier contenders. Here are five quick takeaways from the event.

1. This was the losers' debate. The opening round of questions basically amounted to a demand that the candidates acknowledge their low polling numbers and justify their campaigns. The candidates were all pretty game, acknowledging their low scores so far and shifting quickly to essential talking points about why they want to be president. But it set the tone for the rest of the event, highlighting the fact that these were bottom-tier candidates who didn't make the cut for the prime time debate. The follow-up round of questions asked about Donald Trump, and why he was succeeding while the candidates present obviously (obviously!) weren't.

2. The candidates all wanted to be the most hawkish. All of them promised to stop, tear up, or otherwise oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying America needed someone who would say "hell no" to the deal. Several candidates called for an increased military presence in the Middle East. Bobby Jindal complained repeatedly that President Obama would call out "radical Islam," and said that as president he would "take the political handcuffs off the military." George Pataki, the former New York governor, warned that "We are at greater risk today than at any time since" September 11th, and said that, although he didn't want to put anyone's life at risk, it is nonetheless necessary to send troops to destroy ISIS training camps. Former tech exec Carly Fiorina warned that terrorist attacks are happening more frequently, and singled out China and Russia for "using technology to attack us" which she said is "just like" how ISIS is using weapons to attack us. In the same response, she called on tech companies to "collaborate" with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to give them access to private info and communications.

Lindsey Graham was, predictably, the most hilariously, depressingly single-minded about staking out an ultra-hawkish position at every chance. Early in the debate, he announced his "very simple strategy" to defeat ISIL as president: "Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat them." Sorry, that's not a strategy. It's a slogan.

3. Everyone wanted to defund Planned Parenthood. George Pataki, who one of the moderators noted was the only pro-choice candidate in the running, was asked whether the recent undercover videos shot of Planned Parenthood staffers had "changed his heart." Pataki responded by saying he'd always been appalled by abortion, and that of course he supported cutting government funding to the organization. When that's the pro-choice candidate's answer, you can pretty much guess how the rest felt.

4. The candidates all positioned themselves as tough on immigration. To varying degrees, all the candidates offered tough talk on immigration, declaring a need to secure the borders and, in several cases, reverse Obama's big executive order on immigration. Bobby Jindal, for example, warned that "immigration without assimilation is an invasion." Rick Perry probably stood out the most on this issue, pointing to his record as governor of Texas, with its lengthy southern border. 

5. Jim Gilmore was in the debate, but couldn't offer any reason why. Why in the world is Jim Gilmore running? I watched the entire debate, but still can't tell. Every one of his answers seemed like a desperate attempt to justify his candidacy, but none of them took. Honestly, even after seeing the debate, most people aren't likely to remember anything about him, or even be able to identify who he is. Frankly, the moderators seemed vaguely confused about his presence at times. George Pataki demonstrated a similar problem, although as the former governor of New York, he at least has some name recognition.