In theory, the first important test for the GOP’s many, many presidential hopefuls won’t happen until Feb. 1, when Iowa voters gather for the state’s traditional first-in-the-nation caucuses.
This is potential good news for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who’s expected to enter the race next week. Iowa is generally kind to candidates who sell their conservative Christian bona fides, as Jindal is doing his best to do, although in this crowded field, he’s got plenty of competition to fill the niche.
In practice, though, the first do-or-die moment is scheduled to come much earlier — Aug. 6, to be exact, and not in Iowa but in Cleveland. That’s where Fox News will hold the first Republican Party-approved debate, and the network’s rules for participation threaten to push anyone who isn’t in the top 10 in national polls off the stage. Same for the second debate, sponsored by CNN, set for Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. CNN also has agreed to air a second showdown among those who don’t make the cut.
That, in turn, could prove devastating to low-polling pols who’ll either miss a chance to make an impression or find themselves in the humiliating position of being relegated to the second tier. Jindal is a former congressman and two-term governor, but given his persistently dreadful poll standings — he drew a scant 1 percent in the most recent Fox News polls, presumably one of the surveys the networks will use to determine who’s in and who’s out — he’ll likely find himself shunted off to the kids’ table.
Or will he?
The networks’ attempts to keep the face-offs manageable are already proving hard to manage and have spawned considerable pushback.
Blame Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who’s one of the 16 or so Republicans pursuing the nomination. Fiorina has yet to break through in the polls, but the Republicans have every reason to want her there to counteract the Democrats’ “War on Women” narrative — and every reason to want to avoid accusations that they won’t give her a platform. On top of that, Fiorina’s already staking out a role as a counterpoint (and vocal critic) of frontrunning Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Or blame Donald Trump, whose campaign may amount to little more than performance art but whose poll numbers consistently land him in the top tier. How embarrassing for the GOP to have to give Trump airtime that’s being denied to politicians who’ve been elected to major offices. And how much of a risk is it to the party’s brand, given what he might say?
Or maybe blame Iowa and New Hampshire, the small early voting states that jealously guard their outsized role in the process. Bigwigs in both places correctly see the debate drama as a threat to their primacy. If candidates decide their top priority is to build up their national poll numbers enough to make the first cut, that means they’ll be spending their summer in network green rooms, far from the local fairs and house parties where voters expect to interview their candidates face to face.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has already asked that the rules be chucked and all serious contenders included, perhaps in two randomly selected groups.
The influential New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper has joined with a big group of state GOP politicians in appealing the network rules. Failing that, the paper plans to sponsor a forum on the same day for those who don’t qualify for the Fox debate.
“Voters here have an independent streak,” publisher Joseph McQuaid wrote to the network and party Chairman Reince Priebus. “And they might well be disposed to vote for a so-called ‘also-ran’ who didn’t meet the Fox criteria but has spent the time and effort here to meet them and answer their questions.”
Or blame South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former New York Gov. George Pataki or former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who emerged as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney last time around. Like Jindal, all are longshots, and it’s not at all clear voters are clamoring to hear from any one of them.
But it’s got to be hard for the party to declare a whole group of major elected officials losers — particularly when the club might include the leader of the very swing state where the first debate will be held.
Given all this, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the networks back off and find a way to give Jindal and everyone else an equal spot on the stage, right up there with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and the rest.
The governor should hope so. Otherwise, his campaign may be over before it really begins.