In a showdown of second-tier Republican presidential candidates Thursday evening, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina quickly emerged as the strongest conservative voice on the stage – a searing critic of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and someone not a bit reluctant to do battle with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
Fiorina didn’t mince words on the topic of Trump’s reported ties to the Clintons, following a Washington Post report that Bill Clinton called Trump and gave him some advice before he formally hopped into the GOP race in early June.
"I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race," Fiorina, said during a televised forum in Cleveland for candidates who missed a cutoff in the polls for the main debate. “Maybe it’s because I didn’t give money to [the Clinton] Foundation or donate to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
Fiorina was sharp coming out of the box, and she quickly pooh-poohed a Fox News moderator’s question about her poor showing in the polls. “I would begin by reminding people that at this point in previous presidential elections, Jimmy Carter couldn’t win, Ronald Reagan couldn’t win, Bill Clinton couldn’t win and neither could have Barack Obama.
“I started as a secretary and became ultimately the CEO of the largest technology company in the world, almost $90 billion and 150 countries,” she added in burnishing her resume. “I know personally how extraordinary and unique this nation is.”
If Fiorina more than exceeded expectations – and showed that the only woman in the GOP presidential campaign deserved to be on stage at the main event with Trump and nine others in Cleveland – former Texas governor Rick Perry may have been the biggest disappointment of the night.
Perry, who is still living down his infamous “oops” comment after forgetting one of the three government agencies he vowed to eliminate during his disastrous 2012 campaign, once again stumbled over answers and frequently had awkward pauses.
He insisted that as the longest serving governor of Texas he had more experience than anyone else on the stage to create jobs and crack down on illegal immigration at the border. And yet he was oddly deferential to Fiorina, and at one point suggested that the U.S. should have sent her to the bargaining table to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran rather than Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
That line may come back to haunt him.
In the wake of his recent assertion that Trump was a “cancer” on the Republican party and conservative movements after the billionaire businessman and TV showman openly questioned the heroism of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a Vietnam War era prisoner of war, one might have expected much sharper rhetoric about Trump tonight.
Instead, he watered down his rhetoric in response to a question of whether, as evidenced by his poll numbers, that Trump was “getting the best” of the Republicans in the field.
"When you look at the celebrity of Donald Trump, I think that says a lot about him,” Perry said. “One thing I like to remind people is back in 2007 Rudy Giuliani was leading the polls for almost a year. I’ll suggest a part of that was his celebrity. Fred Thompson was the other man who spent a lot of time on that screen."
"I’ve had my issues with Donald Trump,” Perry prattled on. “I talked about Donald Trump from the standpoint of being an individual who was using his celebrity rather than his conservatism. How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single payer healthcare. I ask that with all due respect. And nobody, nobody on these stages has done more than I have done and the people of the state of Texas to deal with securing that border.”
For Fiorina, Perry and five others, it was embarrassing to be relegated to the warm up act for the Big Boys who were scheduled to go on the air at 9 p.m. EST. The political world is riveted on that debate, pitting Trump against Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and seven other top-tier GOP candidates gathering in Cleveland at the Quicken Loans Arena.
Yet those seven Republican presidential candidates made the best of a bad situation during an early evening consolation round in the near-empty arena hours before the main event.
- Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who dubbed this the "happy hour debate" was hoping to showcase his hardline stands on defense and the war against ISIS. He repeatedly touted his bonafides to be the next commander in chief, and vowed to crush the terrorists with U.S. ground troops and a simple strategy: “Whatever it takes as long as it takes to defeat them.” But he seemed almost lethargic at times, and repeatedly returned to his comfort zone of defense related issues, even when talking about the economy or women’s reproductive rights.
- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, once a rising star within the GOP, provided scripted, well-rehearsed responses to most of the questions asked of him. The only time he went off book was when he was pressed on whether he thought Ohio Gov. John Kasich was wrong to expand Medicaid in his state. "I don't think anyone should expand Medicaid, in Ohio and across the country,” according to Jindal. He saved his best comments for his closing remarks, calling out former Florida governor Jeb Bush for arguing that a candidate needs to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general.” And, in his most eyebrow raising statement, Jindal took on illegal immigration. “We must insist on assimilation -- immigration without assimilation is an invasion. We need to tell folks who want to come here, they need to come here legally. They need to learn English, adopt our values, roll up their sleeves and get to work,” he said.
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses, was furious that he was left out of the main event. He had demonstrated why he was able to attract significant support last time – especially among social conservatives and anti-abortion forces -- even though his latest bid for his party’s nomination is falling flat. Santorum repeatedly mentioned his “20-20 perfect vision for America” economic plan that includes replacing the current tax code with a 20 percent flat tax and overhauling food stamps, Medicaid and housing programs to force beneficiaries to find work and to limit their stay on the rolls. He also vowed to slash immigration to preserve good manufacturing jobs for Americans.
- Former New York governor George Pataki, stuck near the bottom of the polls and the only pro-choice candidate on the stage, said the recent hidden-camera videos of Planned Parenthood hadn’t changed his view on abortion. “My heart was not changed, because I’ve always been appalled by abortion,” Pataki said. He said the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion has been settled law for decades. “I don’t think we should continue to try to change it,” according to Pataki.
- Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, the last to enter the race and probably the single most obscure of the 17 GOP candidates, spent most of the night explaining why he’s the man to sit in the Oval Office, despite the fact that he hasn’t held elected office in 13 years. When it comes to national security, Gilmore talked said he’s “proposed there be a Middle East NATO so that we can combine our allies there to stand up to Iranian expansion, and at the same time join together to begin to stop and this ISIL thing before it becomes an actual state.”
Rob Garver contributed to this report.