CLEVELAND — Squeezed into just a few minutes of time Thursday during the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 cycle, Gov. Bobby Jindal hit on familiar themes in the late-afternoon event: his record in cutting the size of state government, his willingness to say the words “radical Islam,” his opposition to expansion of Medicaid and other entitlement programs, his criticism of Republicans in Congress for failing to deliver and his defense of traditional views of marriage.
“I think our country is tired of the politicians who simply read the polls and fail to lead,” Jindal said. “I think the American people are looking for real leadership. That’s what I’ve done in Louisiana. That’s what I’ll do in America,” he said, after reeling off his usual litany of 30,000 state government job cuts, a 26 percent reduction in the state budget and an enviable rate of private sector job creation.
That came in response to a question from co-moderator Martha MacCallum that showed the debate would carry a sharper edge than the Monday TV forum in New Hampshire that Jindal and 13 of his rivals participated in: Why, MacCallum wanted to know, should that nation rally around Jindal when voters in his own state dislike him, preferring even Democratic contender Hillary Clinton in recent polling of a head-to-head matchup in Louisiana?
The forum comprised candidate interviews one by one, to avoid running afoul of Republican National Committee rules for authorized and unauthorized debates. The RNC-endorsed Thursday event in Cleveland that included Jindal followed a typical debate format, with the candidates arrayed together on the stage.
Although its starting time of 4 p.m. earned it the distinction of the first network TV debate of the Republican campaign, it was not the headline debate of the day. That honor would go to the 8 p.m. matchup of the candidates ranking in the top 10 on average in five recent national polls. At No. 1 is real-estate developer and reality TV celebrity Donald Trump, who will claim the lectern at center stage.
Jindal ranked 13th in the polling average applied by Fox, relegating him and six other candidates to the not-for-prime-time event. That sorting could play a significant role in the prospects of the candidates in the two respective flights, in terms of credibility and media attention.
Jindal, for one, has downplayed the significance of a debate this early in the 2016 cycle, instead emphasizing his efforts in the states that decide early in the nomination process, particularly Iowa, which kicks things off with its caucuses Feb. 1. He has campaigned heavily there and will return Saturday. During the prime-time debate Thursday, Believe Again, an independent political action committee dedicated to Jindal’s election, ran a TV ad in Iowa contrasting the Ohio goings-on with Jindal’s devotion to Iowa.
The other also-rans onstage with Jindal were former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, manning the center lectern as the candidate at No. 11 in the polls; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, who came in 12th; and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. MacCallum teamed with Bill Hemmer, her co-hosts on the Fox show “America’s Newsroom,” to serve as moderators.
Although the debate ran 20 minutes over its advertised time of one hour, the sizable field meant Jindal’s allotment was fairly short, and it seemed disproportionately so in the early going, at least. When he did speak, he repeated pretty much verbatim some of his favorite lines, such as that the “socialist” Clinton and Democrats are working “to turn the American dream into the European nightmare.”
Jindal doubled down on repetition in his half-minute’s worth of closing remarks, in which he said he is “tired of hyphenated Americans,” that immigrants need “to learn English, adopt our values, roll up their sleeves and get to work,” that the nation needs “a doer, not a talker” in the White House and that “It’s time to believe in America again.”
There was no in-fighting among the seven candidates, with each sounding his particular theme: Perry, the governor of a state with a booming economy during his tenure; Santorum, the friend of the working class; Fiorina, the tech-savvy executive; Graham, the foreign-policy expert with the resolve to defeat terrorists; Pataki, elected governor three times in a deep-blue state; and Gilmore, experienced at multiple levels of government.
The candidates all performed skillfully, and there were no “oops” moments like the brain cramp that derailed Perry’s 2012 candidacy, when he declared there were three federal departments he wanted to eliminate and forgot the name of the third one (although Perry did garble his recounting of problems in the Middle East). Fiorina seemed particularly composed and in command of her material, a performance noted by Fox commentators immediately after the debate.
There was little criticism of Republican rivals, although Jindal scored a couple of hits.
When repeatedly pressed by the moderators, he acknowledged that he believes Ohio Gov. John Kasich was wrong to expand Medicaid in Ohio under the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as “Obamacare.” And he volunteered that Bush is wrong to suggest losing a primary to win the general election is a sound strategy, with Jindal arguing that represents a misguided retreat from conservative values.
Besides Trump, the candidates who qualified for the two-hour, prime-time debate are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kasich. Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace were named as moderators.
Jindal, 44, is nearing the end of his second term as governor. He is barred by term-limits law from seeking re-election.
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