Call it the second-tier debate, or scenes from the kids' table, or even "happy hour" -- the description coined by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of seven GOP presidential candidates who polled too poorly to make Thursday night's main draw on Fox News. Whatever you want to call Thursday's late afternoon pre-debate, it's now in the books. Here are a few first impressions.
1) Fox News' hosts introduced Bobby Jindal as Louisiana's "acting governor," a weird phrase that surely drew some chuckles among Louisianans so put off by his constant travel and national maneuvering that they think of him that way anyway (they presumably meant it to distinguish Jindal from the three former governors also on stage, George Pataki, Rick Perry and Jim Gilmore). Indeed, the first question Jindal drew was about his low approval ratings at home and polls showing that he'd lose to Hillary Clinton here despite Louisiana's conservative leanings.
Jindal was ready for this one. He scoffed at candidates who try to win favor by kissing babies, and chalked up his low numbers to hard choices he boasted he'd made. "Americans are looking for real leadership. That's what I did in Louisiana, that's what I'll do for America."
2) Jindal was also ready to go after Planned Parenthood. If elected, Jindal vowed to send the Department of Justice and the IRS after the family planning group, which has come under fire for a series of secretly recorded videos of officials talking bluntly about donated fetal tissue (at the same time, he criticized the IRS for going after conservative groups). Asked whether he'd shut down the government in order to defund Planned Parenthood, Jindal said he hoped President Barack Obama wouldn't go so far -- which was basically his way of saying yes, but it would be the president's fault, not the Republicans'.
3) Jindal is remarkably disciplined in sticking to his talking points -- hey, the consulting firm he hired is called OnMessage Inc, -- and he used a short closing statement to cram in everything he hadn't gotten to during the question and answer period. So Jindal quickly explained that we need a "doer" and not a "talker," that Jeb Bush is wrong to say conservatives should be willing to lose the primary to win the general election, that he's tired of hyphenated Americans, that he's got the backbone, experience and bandwidth to do the job, and that it's time to believe in America again. Whew, deep breath.
All this is familiar rhetoric to those who've been following his campaign closely. The one line that he's used before but that got people's attention on Twitter, though, was that "immigration without assimilation is an invasion."
4) Surprisingly, Jindal didn't have a concise answer to what his first executive order would be. He's now been asked that question twice, during Monday's televised forum and during Thursday's debate, and both times he just talked about repealing all of Obama's executive orders and then kept on listing policy positions.
That's pretty weak, considering that Jindal has criticized Obama for his alleged overuse of executive orders. When are they appropriate and when not? He didn't offer viewers a clue. Of course, as governor Jindal has been eager to issue news-generating executive orders, including one on religious freedom when the Legislature refused to pass a bill he supported on the subject.
5) There were just seven candidates this time, compared to the ten who made the first tier prime-time debate. But it was still too crowded for anyone to make a huge impression The one exception, according to instant reviews from around the Internet and on Fox itself, was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- ironically, the one contestant on the stage who's never been elected to anything (she shares that honor with Donald Trump and Ben Carson from the prime time debate).
Jindal, of course, says he doesn't care about all that, that he's pursuing a "small-state strategy" of trying to emerge in early voting Iowa and catch momentum from there. Given that he was excluded from the first prime-time debate, may well miss the second one on CNN next month, and didn't give viewers Thursday enough reason to regret his absence from the big stage, he really doesn't have any other choice.