Carly Fiorina was the clear winner in a dull and relatively uneventful undercard debate Thursday evening. The former Hewlett Packard CEO was the most composed and effective of the seven candidates taking the stage in Cleveland, getting off a few memorable lines and detailed policy proposals.
Fiorina argued for greater integration of law enforcement efforts to combat cyber warfare and terrorism, calling for a “different mindset” with respect to this fight. “We need to tear down cyber walls, not on a mass basis but on a targeted basis,” she said. She repeated a frequent stump speech promise that her first two calls as president would be to “her friend” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to the supreme leader of Iran. This, she said, to send a message to both our allies and our enemies that “America is back in the leadership business.”
But Fiorina’s biggest line of the night effectively dispatched the issue of Donald Trump early on. “I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn't,” she said in response to a question about the whether the reality TV star and businessman was crowding her out. “Maybe it's because I hadn't given money to the foundation or donated to his wife's Senate campaign. Here's the thing they would ask Donald Trump in all seriousness. He is the party's frontrunner right now, and good for him. I think he's tapped into an anger that people feel. They're sick of politics as usual. You know, whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hoped would resolved, the political class has failed you. That's just a fact and that's what Donald Trump taps into. I would also just say this. 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?”
That was the closest Fiorina, or any of the other six candidates, came to having a breakout moment. Rick Perry, at center stage, appeared nervous at first but recovered when answering another question about Trump, with whom the former Texas governor has been spatting over the last few weeks. Perry used the chance to reiterate his argument that Trump is not putting forth conservative ideas, but the effect was less pronounced than Fiorina’s. After his disastrous debate performances in the 2012 cycle, Perry sounded forceful as he claimed, “If you elect me president of the United States, I will secure that southern border.”
The other 2012 holdover in the undercard debate, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, gave a competent performance, handling well a question about what he would do with the illegal immigrants currently in the country when deporting them might separate families. Santorum noted that his father was born in Italy but was blocked by American immigration laws from following his father to the U.S. until he turned seven years old. His father, according to Santorum, always said “America was worth the wait.”
“The reason America is a great country is because our compassion is in our laws,” Santorum said.
Bobby Jindal, the two-term Louisiana governor who has struggled to break through in a crowded GOP race, had his best moment when responding on the issue of Medicaid expansion to Ohio governor John Kasich, who will be in the 9 p.m. debate. While Kasich expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, Jindal did not, arguing that doing so in Louisiana would mean kicking off other citizens from their privately purchased health-insurance plans. “There is a better way to provide health care. Simply expanding Medicaid doesn’t improve health outcomes,” Jindal said. It was a wonky answer that would have been better suited for the main stage, when Kasich might have been able to respond.
The remaining candidates—Lindsey Graham, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki—did little to change their statuses at the bottom of the pack, likely because none of them, or the other participants, were doing any debating with each other. Ultimately, without an incentive to make contrasts with the other guy polling below three percent, there wasn’t much in the way of fireworks.