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Fox News “Happy Hour” debate: Fiorina wins convincingly on the undercard

The arena was empty, the candidates were verbose and the substance was light.

Such was the atmosphere of the so-called “Happy Hour” debate in Cleveland on Thursday afternoon. The event GOP Happy Hourfeatured the seven lower-tier Republican candidates who didn’t make the top ten in national polls (and hence, qualify for the primetime event) – and for the most part, it was understandable why these folks haven’t caught fire with the public.

Fox News’ TV coverage began with a camera shot of a large arena (Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers play) that was mostly empty save for the large stage and seven lecterns set neatly upon it.

Hey, Motley Crue is going to appear there on August 18th -- I bet they’ll have a much bigger crowd!

Immediately you wonder, do we need an audience to generate excitement at a political debate? No, but it doesn’t hurt, either.

It kind of reminded me of congressmen giving speeches to an empty chamber in the middle of the night on CSPAN.

At least the moderators (Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum of Fox News) didn’t have to admonish the audience to hold applause in order to let the candidates answer questions. When each candidate was introduced, it sounded like about twenty people clapped.

The pittance of noise was probably generated from the respective staffs of each candidate.

The atmosphere aside, the “debate” format was pretty standard. Topics touched on electability, Donald Trump as a candidate, ISIS, Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, economy and jobs, the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood/abortion and of course, immigration.

The candidates did not use the time to bash on Donald Trump as much as I thought they might. Except for a specific question mentioning his name, he hardly came up. Rick Santorum actually complimented Trump for tapping into the anger of the voters.

Similarly, Bobby Jindal was the only candidate to openly criticize Jeb Bush (in reference to Bush’s remark that candidates may need to be willing to lose the primary in order to win the general election).

Clearly, Trump is seen as the front-runner in the race.

A few themes. First, who won’t benefit from this debate

Three of these candidates have no realistic chance to crack the top ten before the CNN debate in September.

Those being Lindsey Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore.

Gilmore just got in the race and looked a little rusty in presenting his ideas. He hasn’t held elective office in over ten years, so it was understandable that he lacked a commanding presence in this type of forum. In fairness, it seemed like he wasn’t given much of an opportunity to talk.

Lindsey Graham said that we need to put troops back in Iraq and Syria – and that anyone who wasn’t prepared to do so isn’t qualified to be Commander in Chief. Wow.

Further, Graham’s southern twang made him sound sleepy. He also regurgitated his “Clinton-speak” remark from Monday night’s forum. Does he have nothing better to say? Why is he here?

Finally, George Pataki refused to admit that the recent Planned Parenthood videos have had any influence on his belief in legalized abortion. He said only that abortion should be outlawed after viability (20 weeks). That’s a position that simply goes against the tide of public opinion in the conservative community.

Who might benefit from this debate

Two candidates could conceivably gain something from their debate showings – Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal.

Rick Santorum sounded confident in restating his case for why he should be president. He should be well practiced, having participated in 20-something debates during the 2012 cycle. His main problem is that he doesn’t really have anything new to say and we’ve already heard his personal stories.

Santorum claims his record of accomplishments makes him qualified. Again, the problem is that he hasn’t been in office for years. When he talks about pushing legislation, it has nothing to do with anything that’s occurred lately.

But he might benefit because he looked polished. (One potential gaffe – he did say he was “a child of Ronald Reagan.” That sounded odd.)

Bobby Jindal might benefit because of his command of policy. Jindal deftly deflected a question on his falling popularity in Louisiana, then launched into specifics on why Medicaid expansion was a bad idea.

He shows a wonk-ish knowledge of issues. But does he have the flair to build a real following? He’s not very exciting… at least not compared to many in the top tier.

Who will benefit from this debate

One for sure, one maybe.

Carly Fiorina is sure to get a boost from Thursday afternoon’s debate. She showed a solid command of issues, a gift for articulation and the temperament to lead.

She even said she was proud to be a conservative.

Pundits gushed over her after the debate and it was mostly merited. At last check, over 80% of viewers said she won the debate.

Her biggest highlight came when responding to the question on Donald Trump’s candidacy. “I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I got in the race…I think he’s tapped into the anger of voters. The political class has failed you.”

She then highlighted Trump’s issue flip-flops and asked, “What are the principles by which you will govern?”

Rick Perry came out very forcibly from the outset, clearly trying to erase any notion left over from 2012 that he wasn’t up to running for president. Understandably, Perry talked quite a bit about his record in Texas and how he’s familiar with the issue of immigration.

He also spoke forcibly on the Iran nuclear deal. “I would rather have Carly Fiorina doing the negotiation than John Kerry.” I’m not sure if that was a compliment to Fiorina, but it probably helped her to have a fellow candidate mention her.

It’s over, now bring on the varsity

It should be noted that the debate ran twenty minutes over its one-hour time slot. Part of the reason was the candidates couldn’t give a two-word answer when commanded to do so – and then gave rather lengthy “30 second” closing statements.

For the most part, the “Happy Hour” debate failed to add much to the discussion on who will be the Republican nominee in 2016. Let’s hope the top-tier candidates prove they belong in primetime.

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