Last week was never going to be a good one for Gov. Bobby Jindal. Try as he did, there’s no positive way to spin the failure of a former congressman, two-term governor and ex-chairman of the Republican Governors Association to qualify for the first prime-time presidential debate.
But was it really that bad? Irrevocably bad? Potentially campaign-ending bad?
Now that Fox News’ two debates — both the prime-time showdown featuring the 10 top-polling candidates and the afternoon debate that included Jindal and six other also-rans — are in the books, I’d have to say yes.
Seventeen candidates sounds like a lot when you say it, but seeing so many politicians on one stage, even on two stages, really drives home just how difficult it’s going to be for any one person to make an impression. And it’s that much harder if all the signals suggest you’re not in the group that voters are expected to seriously consider.
That’s not really the truth, and sorting candidates into winners and losers based on small differences in early polls doesn’t seem particularly fair. But it’s what happened, and Jindal and the rest have to live with the consequences.
The consequence from Thursday night’s main show was that it’s hard to imagine voters, donors or other players who tuned in wondering who else might be out there. The stage practically exploded with big personalities, and, under sharp questioning by Fox’s moderators, they put on an unpredictable, amusing and frequently compelling show. There wasn’t enough oxygen for everyone who was there, let alone those, like Jindal, who had taken their turn and headed out to dinner.
Lots of people watched the big debate, too — 24 million, a new cable news record, and four times the audience of the smaller debate. And given the combined news and entertainment value, it will be talked about for days to come.
What they saw was truly gripping, probably all the more so because the tough questioning came from three big-name Fox hosts, Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, and thus amounted to friendly fire.
There were epic Donald Trump moments, starting with his humiliating face-off with the cool-as-a-cucumber Kelly over his habit of describing women as fat pigs, dogs, slobs and so forth.
Even worse for the governor, there were moments from serious candidates that would satisfy anyone looking for what Jindal is offering, and they often came off better than Jindal does.
Anyone looking for gubernatorial experience got to hear Jeb Bush and John Kasich talk about their accomplishments, and they governed much bigger states, Florida and Ohio, that will be in play in the general election. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker filled the same niche, although he had a more forgettable night.
Bush talked at length about his education reform credentials — another Jindal mainstay — although he tried to downplay his support for Common Core. If that’s a deal-killer for some, well, they got to hear Marco Rubio’s critique of the controversial education standards that Jindal first supported but now opposes.
Several candidates offered their own version of Jindal’s only-in-America origin story, including two, Rubio and Ted Cruz, who also come from immigrant families. Rubio stood out on this front when he angrily asked how Hillary Clinton was going to lecture him on living paycheck to paycheck, when he was “raised paycheck to paycheck.”
Other candidates even used some of Jindal’s go-to lines. He wasn’t there to complain that President Barack Obama refuses to talk about radical Islamic terrorism, but Cruz did it for him. At one point, a Jindal staffer tweeted out an irritated response to Walker’s most memorable line, about the Chinese and Russians probably knowing more about what’s in Clinton’s emails than Congress does. The quip was even better when Jindal said it over a month ago, the tweet said.
Jindal did cram as many of his regular talking points into his own segment as possible, and he even drew some Internet traffic for vowing to send the IRS and Department of Justice after Planned Parenthood, and for asserting that “immigration without assimilation is an invasion.” But there was no getting around the fact that he was part of the warm-up for the big event.
While the first debate took place in an empty basketball arena, the second had a full, boisterous crowd. The afternoon affair featured visibly weaker questioners as well. Both events started with candidates being asked about their greatest weaknesses — Jindal’s question was about his low poll numbers in Louisiana, including one showing Clinton would beat him in the deep red state — but during the early debate, the questions sounded more like, why are they bothering?
The whole night, in fact, made the top tier seem larger than life. And it made Jindal and the rest of the candidates at the so-called kids’ table seem awfully small.
Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.