The Undercard: First Impressions From the Second-Tier Republican Debate

A few initial reactions to the not-ready-for-prime-time "kids' table" debate that just aired on Fox...

First, there is a reason this was the undercard debate. Though some participants fared better than others, not a person on that stage delivered a performance so commanding that it merits promotion into the top tier. In this Trump-less environment, there was ample opportunity to break out. That didn't happen.

In roughly descending order, here's how the candidates did:

CARLY FIORINA. Fiorina comes across as the classic vanity candidate, someone whose quest for office seems more about advancing her career than serving the voters. As a debater, she isn't terrible, just not very persuasive. She strives to present herself as a latter-day Margaret Thatcher, but instead she projects the qualities of a boss that everyone in the office hates. On the plus side, her outsider status served her well in this debate, and she had the good sense to end her closing statement with an appeal for support and a convincing smile. She may not vault into the top ten, but she lives to fight another day.

RICK SANTORUM. For someone whose views are so far out of the mainstream, Santorum has an admirable ability to sound reasonable. His problem is the gigantic "sell-by-2012" label emblazoned on his forehead. Santorum is a capable debater--we saw that four years ago and we saw it again tonight--and he did no damage to his brand. But fluency in the debate arena will not be sufficient to kick him upstairs.

RICK PERRY. The prospect of Rick Perry on a debate stage is usually reason enough to tune in, but viewers expecting an "oops" moment were left disappointed. Perry had a decent explanation for Donald Trump's surge in the polls, and he spoke passionately about border security. Furthermore, he cleverly positioned himself as one of 17 candidates, not just another of the seven dwarves. Still, he sounds more like a Will Ferrell character than a plausible president.

BOBBY JINDAL. Jindal's relentless negativism and unfriendly on-camera demeanor make him a difficult debater to watch. He's a scold--who wants to listen to that? Instead of reacting in the moment, with organic responses to the discussion at hand, he fell back on the same rhetoric he always falls back on. Jindal needed to advance a rationale for his candidacy; at the end of 90 minutes, that rationale had not come into focus.

LINDSEY GRAHAM. At Monday's New Hampshire "Voters First" forum, Graham was funny, lively, and personable. All three of those qualities vacated him in Cleveland--did Graham get ahold of Rick Perry's leftover painkillers from 2012? The senator seemed to be participating in a different debate from everyone else, a debate in which even questions about women's health got answered with a plea for war in the Middle East. Throughout the evening he seemed on the verge of tears--sort of a political Renee Zellweger. When you're running for president, "sad sack" is probably not the winning persona.

JIM GILMORE and GEORGE PATAKI. Somebody get the hook. In a field this large, it's time to start winnowing. Start here.

Final thought: For those who did not watch the five o'clock "happy hour" debate, congratulations: you didn't miss much. Now let's see what the big boys have.