SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — If four presidential candidates debate without Donald Trump on the stage, do they make a sound? Probably not, which is bad news for the four GOP presidential contenders who participated in CNN’s undercard debate Wednesday evening.
For nearly two hours, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum engaged in a substantive and sometimes heated debate over a wide array of issues at the Reagan Library.
All four are polling poorly, which is why they participated in an earlier debate before the 11 leading Republican contenders will engage in rhetorical fisticuffs in primetime.
Perhaps standing out among the four early debates was Graham, who used his time on stage to focus like a laser on making the case that he is the most qualified candidate to win the war against radical Islamism.
“I’m running for president to destroy radical Islam, to win the war on terror, to protect you and your family and in that quest,” Graham pledged in his opening statement. “I have an uncompromising determination to end this war, just like President Reagan had an uncompromising determination to destroy the evil empire and win the Cold War.”
Asked about Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who recently made news when she defied the Supreme Court by refusing to issue a marriage license to a same sex couple, Graham turned the question back to the threat of terrorism.
“Kim Davis, I’m not afraid about her attacking me,” Graham said. “I am worried about radical Islamic terrorists planning another 9/11. We’re at war, folks.”
Graham mixed his serious message about the need to deploy combat troops to defeat the Islamic State with some lighthearted humor.
“Ronald Reagan did a couple of really big things we should all remember,” Graham said at one point. “He sat down with Tip O’Neill, the most liberal guy in the entire House [of Representatives]. They started drinking together. That’s the first thing I’m going to do as president. We’re going to drink more.”
Santorum used his time on the debate stage to mix his conservatism with more populist proposals, including raising the minimum wage.
“What you’re basically saying, whatever Republicans are up here saying is we are against the minimum wage,” he declared. “If you’re not for increasing it, the answer is the Republicans don’t believe in a floor wage in America. Fine. You go ahead and make that case to the American public. I’m not going to.”
Pataki sought to strike a more moderate tone, standing up to Jindal and Santorum when they defended Kim Davis for defying the Supreme Court.
“There’s a place where religion supersedes the rule of law,” he said at one point. “It’s called Iran. It shouldn’t be the United States.”
As for Jindal, he didn’t back away from his pre-debate attacks on Trump. Asked by moderator Jake Tapper whether he was violating Ronald Reagan’s proverbial 11th commandment by attacking Trump, a fellow Republican, so harshly, Jindal said “no… because Trump was not a Republican.
“I’m in compliance with the 11th Commandment and I’ll say let’s stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican,” he said. “If he were really a conservative and 30 points ahead, I would endorse him. He’s not a conservative. He’s not a liberal. He’s not a Democrat. He’s not an independent. He believes in Donald Trump.”
Before the debate, the moderators indicated that they would try to get the candidates to engage each other. They certainly succeeded, with the four low-polling contenders sometimes engaging in fiery debates.
But for Jindal, Pataki, Graham and Santorum, it may all have been for naught. With Trump not on the stage, it’s unclear how many viewers were tuning in.
Then again, there’s always the Ballad of Carly Fiorina, who performed so well in last month’s undercard debate that she was among the top stories coming out of Cleveland. Tonight, she’s on the main stage.