Can One of the 'Happy Hour' Candidates Break Through Like Carly Fiorina Did?

GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina marches in a Labor Day rally in New Hampshire. GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina marches in a Labor Day rally in New Hampshire. Jim Cole/AP

Carly Fior­ina made it onto the top-tier stage for CNN’s second GOP de­bate after a strong show­ing in, and heavy lob­by­ing after, the first con­test for lower-polling can­did­ates. Now, the can­did­ates she left be­hind on the bot­tom rung are gun­ning to fol­low her ex­ample.

Fior­ina won pun­dits’ and voters’ hearts at the de­bate last month for her com­posed, ra­tion­al-sound­ing per­form­ance. She seemed to rise above the col­lect­ive GOP fray, look­ing “pre­pared and poised,” The Wash­ing­ton Post said. And she showed a strong, if un­der­stated, will­ing­ness to go tete-a-tete with her op­pon­ents, with con­ser­vat­ive colum­nist Charles Krau­tham­mer call­ing her “very flu­id yet very strong and com­bat­ive.” Her suc­cess trans­lated in­to the polls, spur­ring CNN to change its meth­od of can­did­ate se­lec­tion and launch­ing her onto the prime-time stage.

Though the four re­main­ing can­did­ates in the lower-tier de­bate can’t whole-hog em­brace Fior­ina’s style, her re­cent suc­cess mak­ing it in­to the A-level de­bate at the very least gives them some hope. And with the loss of Fior­ina; Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race Fri­day; and Jim Gilmore, who didn’t qual­i­fy for this de­bate, they’ll have a lot more air­time in which to make their pitches than they did dur­ing the first match. Here, how each of the lower-tier can­did­ates is cam­paign­ing go­ing in­to the de­bate—and how each could stand out on the not-so-crowded stage.

BOBBY JIN­DAL

Go­ing in­to the second de­bate, the Louisi­ana gov­ernor has put all his eggs in­to the anti-Don­ald Trump bas­ket, trash-talk­ing Trump at events and plainly ad­vert­ising his dis­dain—and where and when he’ll next con­vey it—on Twit­ter.

At face value, the strategy might look un­wise for a low-polling can­did­ate: Why so ob­vi­ously go after a front-run­ner and risk ali­en­at­ing voters who find Trump ap­peal­ing? Jin­dal, in an in­ter­view this week on Fox, sug­ges­ted his tac­tic is a mat­ter of prin­ciple, that he can’t sit idly by while a non­con­ser­vat­ive like Trump traipses around the coun­try.

But his tac­tic is likely a com­bin­a­tion of a few oth­er factors. In at­tack­ing Trump, Jin­dal is show­ing the same will­ing­ness to go to battle that Fior­ina was praised for in the first de­bate (al­beit without her com­pos­ure): If Jin­dal con­veys that he’s will­ing to take on the big dogs, maybe voters will make him one. It’s also a play for great­er name re­cog­ni­tion—es­pe­cially see­ing as Trump has punched back on his much lar­ger na­tion­al plat­form—show­ing voters who haven’t sipped the Trump juice that Jin­dal is on their side.

Or Jin­dal could also simply be fol­low­ing the Trump mod­el: The mogul’s blustery hy­per­crit­icism has worked very well in his fa­vor, so un­der­per­form­ing Jin­dal might as well give it a shot.

RICK SAN­TOR­UM

The one-time sen­at­or from Pennsylvania was very vo­cal earli­er this sum­mer about his dis­pleas­ure over Fox’s two-tier de­bate struc­ture, and it’s un­likely that he feels any dif­fer­ently about CNN’s. But that aside, San­tor­um looks to be more fo­cused on the ground game than wheth­er his ap­pear­ance in a TV de­bate will cata­pult him to the top. Be­fore last month’s de­bate, he sug­ges­ted he won’t be pre­oc­cu­pied by his stand­ing in na­tion­al rank­ings—“[i]t is not a na­tion­al race”—and much prefers a state-by-state ral­ly­ing of sup­port. Or in the case of Iowa, a county-by-county ral­ly­ing: By last week, San­tor­um had vis­ited all 99 this cycle. 

San­tor­um’s pref­er­ence is rooted in per­son­al pre­ced­ent: Dur­ing the 2012 cycle, it wasn’t a sin­gu­lar de­bate per­form­ance that thrust San­tor­um to the front of the pack. Rather, it was his hy­per­fo­cused cam­paign­ing in Iowa. As NBC News noted re­cently, San­tor­um was to­ward the bot­tom in Iowa this time in 2011, but two months after hit­ting all 99 counties in Novem­ber 2011, he won the Iowa caucuses. Even if San­tor­um doesn’t wow the crowd Wed­nes­day night with his policy an­swers, he can show them that he’s will­ing to put in the leg work, in some cases lit­er­ally, to earn their vote.

LIND­SEY GRA­HAM

Lind­sey Gra­ham told NBC News be­fore last month’s con­test that he’d have a great­er “chance” in the lower tier “where there’s not so much noise and gib­ber­ish.” On Wed­nes­day, without Perry, Gilmore, and Fior­ina, he’ll have even more time on the air to talk policy, and to sell voters on the idea that he can’t be dis­coun­ted.

Gra­ham’s present­ing him­self to voters as one of the only truly seasoned can­did­ates in the race, hav­ing served in the Sen­ate since 2003 and in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives be­fore that. He’s built a cam­paign around the tough-talk­ing, hawk­ish ap­proach to for­eign policy that he’s shown off in the up­per cham­ber, and is likely to use Wed­nes­day’s even ti­ni­er de­bate—against two gov­ernors and a one-term former sen­at­or—to show off even more. Gra­ham is also a funny guy, who cracks le­git­im­ate jokes at cam­paign events and isn’t afraid to col­lab­or­ate with new-me­dia prank­sters (see the IJRe­view video where he des­troys a cell phone). Gra­ham could use that wit in the de­bate to present a light­er side to him­self—in between his anti-Is­lam­ic State flamethrow­ing, of course.

In re­cent months, Gra­ham has brought along a show-and-tell demon­stra­tion on the stump: the pres­ence of his Sen­ate bud and former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate John Mc­Cain. On the trail, Gra­ham has re­minded voters that early on in the 2007 cycle, Mc­Cain’s cam­paign was flounder­ing, even though he went on to clinch the GOP nom­in­a­tion. Both men seem to see the same po­ten­tial in Gra­ham, and if his re­marks on the trail are any in­dic­a­tion, Gra­ham won’t be shy telling voters Wed­nes­day night that he knows he’s got ground to make up.

GEORGE PA­TAKI

The former New York gov­ernor isn’t run­ning a ter­ribly vis­ible or tra­di­tion­al cam­paign. He’s been in the race since late May, but hasn’t made a splash with his rhet­or­ic or set him­self apart on policy. He’s a fly-be­low-the-radar kind of can­did­ate who, des­pite ex­chan­ging re­cent barbs with Don­ald Trump, can’t seem to gain the vis­ib­il­ity he needs; The New York Times re­cently said that he “spends a lot of time these days re­mind­ing voters that he used to run the State of New York.” Pa­taki could be drowned out in the second-tier con­test, even in a “crowd” of four.

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