WASHINGTON — Once again, Gov. Bobby Jindal will be relegated to the so-called kids’ table when Republican presidential candidates assemble Wednesday for a program of nationally televised debates. Low poll ratings again are keeping him out of the featured lineup in prime time.
But he’ll have less company this time at the undercard debate, to be broadcast on CNN at 5 p.m., than joined him at the first nationwide TV debate on Fox News on Aug. 6. That’s because three of the six candidates who stood with him onstage in Cleveland last month won’t be back alongside him Wednesday in Simi Valley, California.
Two of those candidates — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — have suffered fates Jindal hopes to avoid: Perry dropped out of the race Friday because of dwindling financial and popular support, and Gilmore’s poll numbers are so low that he is the only one of the 17 (now 16) substantive Republican candidates who failed to get invited to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for either debate Wednesday.
But the other departed candidate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, has left the junior varsity roster for a reason Jindal hopes to emulate: Her poll numbers rose after the Cleveland debate and qualified her for the main event, to air at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“The kids’ table served its purpose,” said John McGlennon, chairman of the department of government at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “It let somebody say, ‘Hey, folks, I just graduated from high school. It’s time to make room for me at the grown-ups’ table.’ ”
It was Fiorina’s forceful, assured performance in the Fox News debate that’s credited for her rise.
“Any candidate in that undercard debate is going to try to replicate Carly Fiorina’s model of being polished and strong,” said political scientist Dan Birdsong, of the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Jindal drew some praise for his turn onstage Aug. 6, but his poll numbers haven’t reflected success.
Both Fox and CNN initially said the top 10 candidates in national polls would qualify for the top tier, but the networks applied different methods for determining the rankings — and CNN adjusted its method in a way that added Fiorina as an 11th prime-timer.
Fox calculated averages from five recent polls before Aug. 6. Jindal came in 13th.
CNN originally planned to average polls conducted from July 16 to Sept. 10 to pick its top 10. But that approach would not have given Fiorina’s recent surge enough weight to boost her into the top 10, an outcome criticized as insensitive to the changing political environment.
So CNN announced Sept. 1 that the first tier would include any candidate who averaged a top 10 ranking in the original two-month time frame or in the period from Aug. 6 to Sept. 10.
That change put Fiorina in the charmed circle, where, as it turned out, she will join the 10 candidates who gathered for the prime-time debate on Fox. Real estate developer and reality TV celebrity Donald Trump came in atop the CNN ranking, and he again will claim center stage for the main event, flanked by 10 of his rivals, arrayed in order of their CNN standings: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, of Maryland; U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas; U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Fiorina, of California.
Trump, Bush and Walker also ranked first through third in Cleveland, but there’s been some repositioning in the lower slots.
Jindal, 44, came in 14th in both sets of CNN calculations. Returning to participate with him in the “happy hour” debate are former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania; U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina; and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Gilmore was left out because he did not meet the minimum CNN threshold of registering at least 1 percent in three polls during the two-month window.
Jindal “is happy to go and debate anyone, anytime, anywhere,” his campaign manager, Timmy Teepell, said. Although the second-tier event in Cleveland drew only one-fourth the audience of the top-billed affair, Teepell noted that the 6 million viewers for the earlier forum still represented a historically large audience for a primary debate.
“The last debate reshuffled the deck,” he said, “and I think this debate is going to reshuffle the deck again.
“We’re at a stage in this election where it’s very fluid.”
Birdsong, too, said more movement in the rankings is likely. “I think most people are waiting to see what happens with Trump’s numbers,” he said.
Trump could figure prominently in Jindal’s debate performance: In a speech in Washington on Thursday, Jindal delivered a sharp and extended attack on Trump, calling him a narcissist and an egomaniac, a “carnival act” who is ignorant of policy and is not an authentic conservative.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who will moderate both debates with help from CNN reporter Dana Bash and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, could ask Jindal about his diatribe at some point during the one-hour, 45-minute debate. Candidates will have one minute to respond to questions and a chance for 30-second rebuttals if their name is invoked by another candidate.
But Charlie Cook, who writes the national Cook Political Report, wonders who will be watching.
“It takes a serious junkie to want to watch the earlier debate the second time around,” he said. “You’d have to be really into this stuff.”
The Jindal campaign has consistently downplayed the significance of the early debates and the sorting of the candidates by the networks hosting them. Jindal’s game is a long one, emphasizing the states that decide early in the nomination process — especially Iowa, which hosts the Feb. 1 caucus that kicks things off, and where Jindal has spent more time campaigning than all or nearly all of his rivals.
“This is just the next debate,” Teepell said of the CNN event. “It’s not the last debate. There’s going to be a number more.”
Next up after Wednesday, on the schedule sanctioned by the Republican National Committee, is an Oct. 28 debate on CNBC, followed by three others before the Iowa caucus and then another half-dozen after that.
McGlennon said the clock is ticking.
“There are still so many candidates,” he said, “that we have to start seeing some fall out from this oversized menu.”
Nonetheless, Cook said, there’s still the potential for another undercard performer to duplicate Fiorina’s success.
“There’s no way to know,” he said. “If somebody just did a fantastic job, then he could conceivably move up.”
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog.