Washington — Another nationally televised debate among Republican candidates for president, another undercard for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
For the fourth time in four tries, Jindal fell short of qualifying for the prime-time event in a nationally televised debate program, based on national poll results — and again, on Tuesday in Milwaukee, he will be relegated to the second tier with other also-rans. Jindal will appear for the one-hour warmup debate at 6 p.m. on the Fox Business Network, with the two-hour main event scheduled for 8 p.m. The debate will focus on economic issues, including jobs, businesses and Social Security.
Making the prime-time cut were real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, of New York; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, of Maryland; U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida; U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, of California; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky.
Joining Jindal on the undercard will be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania.
“Debates are important to this campaign and the future of our nation,” Jindal’s campaign manager, Timmy Teepell, said in an email.
Teepell said it was “a shame” that the structure of the debates has meant some candidates are excluded from the prime-time stage.
“Gov. Jindal has worked hard and built strong support in Iowa,” Teepell said. “He deserves a chance to participate.”
Iowa hosts the Feb. 1 caucuses that kick off the formal nomination process, and Jindal has campaigned heavily in the state. He has spent more time there than all but one other candidate, and his supporters have spent millions on TV ads promoting him.
His campaign has argued that poll results in Iowa and other early-deciding states should count most heavily in determining debate lineups on the grounds that national surveys at this stage are little more than gauges of name recognition. Jindal is in seventh place in Iowa, with 3 percent support, according to the Real Clear Politics average of five recent polls there. He barely registers in polls in other early states.
But Jindal’s pleas have not swayed the networks. His campaign met with representatives of most of his rivals last Sunday to discuss changes to the debate format in the aftermath of the Oct. 28 debate on CNBC widely panned as a disaster. Candidates complained of “gotcha” questions and efforts by the moderators to generate conflict.
“The networks see these debates as a way to showcase their talent” — not to showcase the candidates, said Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report. “They are using these debates for their own purposes, in addition to making money.”
Jindal’s supporters looked for a way to get their candidate onto center stage. But other campaigns pursued different objectives, and the meeting produced little consensus.
“The idea of having all these guys on board for some specific things about these debates was never going to happen because their interests are so different,” Cook said. “What’s in Bobby Jindal’s best interest has nothing to do with what’s in Trump’s or any of the others’ (interests).”
Jindal may be disappointed that he’s heading back to the kids’ table, but to some extent, he’s fortunate he got an invitation at all.
FBN awarded slots in its featured debate to candidates scoring 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent national polls conducted through Wednesday that met certain criteria, and Jindal never threatened to crash that party. But the network said it would leave out altogether any candidates who failed to muster at least 1 percent support in any of the four polls.
FBN did not say in advance which polls would count, and it was not clear how the criteria would be applied. In three of the four polls ultimately tallied, as well as in a fifth poll thought to be in the mix, Jindal fell below 1 percent. But in a poll by Investor’s Business Daily conducted Oct. 24-29, Jindal came in at 2 percent — and that poll’s inclusion by FBN in its calculations landed him a spot.
On the outside looking in are U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
Graham, Pataki and Santorum participated with Jindal in the two most recent happy-hour debates, on CNN Sept. 16 and on CNBC Oct. 28. In the first one, on Fox News Aug. 6, those four were joined by Fiorina, Gilmore and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who later dropped out of the race.
Each network has applied somewhat different criteria in seeding its debates, but none wanted a dozen or more candidates on stage at once and all drew on national poll results. Fox News slotted 10 candidates in prime time, CNN 11 and CNBC 10. One of the early prime-timers, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has abandoned his effort.
Fiorina leveraged a forceful and confident performance on the first undercard into a lectern on the main stage. But Cook thinks the odds are long against a duplication of that feat by another candidate.
“From the very beginning, the question was, was there one ticket out of the undercard, and it turns out there was one — and Carly got it,” he said. “Period.”
Each additional appearance on the undercard makes a subsequent one more unlikely, said Robert Schmuhl, director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana.
“It’s important to be in the prime-time debate for the very simple reason that as we move into the fourth one, the stereotype will develop that a candidate excluded from it is not in the first rank,” he said. “In terms of who is a potential major player versus who might be a minor player, that thinking has hardened.”
The first two debates drew record numbers of viewers for the cable networks televising the events: about 24 million for each of the prime-time debates. The first two undercard debates each were watched by about 6 million people. Those numbers fell off with the CNBC debate, to 14 million for the featured event and 1.6 million for the undercard.
“I don’t know how you could even make momentum swing your way as long as you’re on the undercard,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University, in Indiana. “There aren’t enough viewers for that. And the signal sent to the electorate is that these are the people who are on the undercard for a reason.
“You want to be seen at the big boys’ table, so to speak,” McCall said.
Poll numbers and debate seedings are not the only categories in which Jindal is struggling. Fundraising for his campaign lags behind most of his rivals. And in the “invisible primary” of endorsements, he has yet to secure the public backing of any members of Congress or incumbent governors.
But what could be most troubling for Jindal is that the unruly field of Republican candidates may be narrowing — and not in a good way for him.
There is still plenty of uncertainly in the contest for the party’s nomination. The current leaders in the polls, Trump and Carson, have never run for office before, and are capitalizing on widespread voter revulsion against the political establishment — but there is considerable skepticism that either one will actually prevail. Meanwhile, Bush — the son of one president and the brother of another — has fallen from odds-on favorite to flailing long shot.
Two other candidates seem poised to move in and pick up the pieces if Trump, Carson and Bush flame out: Rubio and Cruz. Both are strengthening in the polls, both are well financed and each stands to inherit the banner of a potentially potent wing of the party: Rubio, the conventional candidate acceptable to the party regulars; Cruz, the bomb-thrower promising radical upheaval.
The bigger threat to Jindal is Cruz. Despite his membership in Congress, he has claimed an anti-establishment label, leading the 2013 federal government shutdown over Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and aggressively challenging his party’s leaders in the Senate. He also has courted the evangelical Christian vote. In both cases, he potentially takes the wind from Jindal’s sails.
“Cruz is the ‘outsider’ candidate that’s got a real campaign, that has a strategy that sort of makes sense, and has the fundraising capacity to go the distance,” Cook said.
Just this past week, Jindal questioned the value of Cruz’s shutdown fight, and challenged him to a one-on-one debate in Milwaukee over the health care law.
Jindal, at 44 the youngest candidate in the Republican field, is nearing the end of his second term as governor. State law bars him from seeking re-election.
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