The Republican presidential debate on CNBC began much like the previous two: an undercard presentation by four candidates who wanted to be taken seriously but weren’t. Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Gov. George Pataki, Governor Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum took the stage at the first hour ready to lay out their plan and try to differentiate themselves from candidates who would not be on the stage for another two hours.
“I’m the only candidate who…” was the typical opening line, especially when talking about outsider versus insider candidates. Each of the candidates desperately tried to be the next Carly Fiorina, the former CEO whose performance during the first undercard debate in August who launched onto the top tier debate with the impressive performance.
Each of the four candidates were unable to make the 3 percent rule, earning at least 3 percent in the polls determined by CNBC to determine who would be in the top-tier debate. The four men all have less than 3 percent but more than 1 percent, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is polling with negligible numbers and did not get invited to either debate.
Their inability to gain traction is partly blamed on the high number of GOP candidates, currently at 14, while another reason can be laid on Donald Trump and, lately, Ben Carson. Both candidates have become celebrities during the campaign — Trump capitalizing on his high Name ID from his reality show The Apprentice and his bombastic nature and Carson through his reasoned, quiet tone and book tour.
Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who is on his second run for president, has had a hard time capitalizing on his evangelical base that propelled him to second place four years earlier with Carson and Trump hording a large number of that population and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee himself is also struggling to gain a foothold with the evangelicals because of the top two candidates. Graham, who was thought of as a serious candidate for a brief time before the primary slate ballooned in the spring, has been largely forgotten on the trail while Jindal and Pataki has received little coverage from the start. Pataki’s candidate has been a head scratcher from the start while Jindal has struggled with his image from the GOP response to Obama’s speech.
During the CNBC debate, though, they were treated as serious candidates, with hard-hitting questions regarding cybersecurity, fiscal restraint and the president’s policies. They laid out plans to restore fiscal responsibility, immigration and other plans to make America a better place. Each of them took turns attacking the top tier, President Barack Obama, and Democrats.
“Good God look who we’re running against!” Graham said to applause.
But for these four candidates, it is quite possible that the four men are running against their egos, struggling to remain relevant in a party fractured by conservatives, moderates, establishment-minded and rebellion-minded. Each of them had a decent chance to become president if the election were a different year, against different or fewer candidates, or with more lead time to build a network. And now they are running to say that they did not let that chance pass by, that their time to run the United States has not passed.
But that time has passed and they are not ready to admit it. And until they realize it, the debates will continue with two stages: an undercard and a bloated top tier stage. People will still half listen to the words they have to say, hoping that something will make sense out of the 14 candidates vying for a job that will mean a tough fight against a well-funded Democrat in Hillary Clinton and, if they are victorious, serve at least four years with around half the nation hating them purely on party identification.
Let’s hope November has more of a trimming of candidates and a serious campaign begins soon. It wouldn’t hurt if these four were the first to drop out.