Thrown an easy pitch right at the start, Gov. Bobby Jindal renewed his attack Wednesday on front-runner Donald Trump in the second round of debates among Republican candidates for president in 2016.
At the beginning of the 5 p.m. “happy hour” debate among Jindal and three other candidates whose low standings in the polls disqualified them from the featured prime-time event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles, Jindal was asked why he was willing to violate Reagan’s “11th commandment” prohibiting attacks on fellow Republicans.
“Let’s stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican,” Jindal said. “If he were really a conservative and 30 points ahead, I would endorse him.”
In response, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, defended Trump’s right to run as a Republican — and the voters’ ability to decide about his candidacy.
The only person to benefit from Republican attacks on Trump, Santorum said, is Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But Jindal, who launched a focused attack on Trump in a speech Thursday and has kept it up since, has said Trump could not beat Clinton.
“The best way to give this election back is to nominate a Donald Trump,” Jindal said onstage. “He is not a serious candidate.”
Trump, though, was just a passing concern in a lengthy debate that ranged over a variety of issues, tackled by Jindal, Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina.
One of the liveliest exchanges set Jindal and Santorum against Graham and Pataki over the issue of religious freedom as it applies to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for contempt of court after she refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages earlier his year.
Jindal and Santorum basically argued that Davis should be allowed to exercise her religious beliefs in antagonism to same-sex marriage. Pataki and Graham said that, as a government official, she is obligated to respect the rule of law as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jindal’s most impassioned moment came when he attacked Republicans in Congress and their acquiescence in the policies advocated by Democratic President Barack Obama. He said he agrees with Trump that it is time to fire the Washington establishment — a theme he returned to in his closing remarks.
But all four of the also-rans seemed to catch fire at one point or another in the 90-minute debate: Santorum as the champion of the working man, Graham as the scourge of the Islamic State terrorists and Pataki as a pragmatic realist.
No one of the four committed an obvious mistake. All came across as serious and engaged with the issues.
Jindal stood forth as a defender of beleaguered Christians, who, he said, are the leading targets of discrimination in America today.
“I’d like the left to give us a list of jobs that Christians are allowed to have,” he said.
He also managed to work in his favorite line: “America did not create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America.”
And, as he has before in the campaign, he aggressively criticized the Republican establishment in Congress, which, he said, has raised the white flag of surrender to Democrats on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), defunding Planned Parenthood and other disputes.
Graham, a member of that establishment, countered that it was misleading to promise radical change so long as a Democrat occupied the White House.
The event, in which Jindal participated, has been called the kids’ table, the not-ready-for-prime-time event that took place right before the featured debate matching the leading contenders in the race. CNN, which televised the debates, selected the 11 candidates for top billing based on their standings in national polls. Jindal has lagged the field in those polls, consistently scoring in the low single digits, and CNN’s accounting ranked him 14th among the total of 16 candidates the network invited to the two debates.
One of those invitees did not show: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, ranked 12th by CNN, who dropped out of the campaign Friday. Perry said a key factor in his demise was his failure to qualify for the prime-time debate at both the CNN event and at the first debates of the Republican campaign, televised on Fox News Aug. 6 from Cleveland.
Jindal, too, missed the cut Aug. 6. So did the others who joined him on stage Wednesday.
Besides Perry, two others at the kids’ table Aug. 6 did not return Wednesday. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was not invited because he did not clear CNN’s threshold of registering at least 1 percent in three national polls conducted from July 16 to Sept. 10. And former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina capitalized on a strong performance in Cleveland to vault to the main stage Wednesday, joining the 10 headliners from Cleveland. Jindal won some positive reviews for his turn on stage in Cleveland, but the effect on the polls was not enough to earn him a promotion.
Top billing for both events went to Trump, the blunt-talking billionaire developer and reality-TV celebrity who has opened a wide lead in the polls. Jindal, who had earlier offered only sporadic criticism of Trump, went into full Trump-bashing mode Thursday in a speech at the National Press Club, calling him a narcissist and an egomaniac, a “carnival act” who is not a serious candidate and who, if nominated, will hand the election to the Democrats.
Jindal has kept up a snarky, sarcastic anti-Trump tirade in broadcast interviews and on social media, and in an opinion piece published Tuesday on the CNN website, Jindal branded Trump “a madman who must be stopped.” Trump has dismissed the attacks as the carping of a candidate low in the polls who has no chance of winning.
The next Republican debate is planned for Oct. 28, in Boulder, Colorado, to be followed by eight more into March.
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.