To the idea that history isn’t kind to opening acts consider this: A few years ago, Taylor Swift was warming up crowds for Rascal Flatts. This summer, she’s the hottest concert ticket in America.
This isn’t to suggest that any of the seven Republican presidential candidates in Thursday’s first Republican debate in Cleveland is destined for their name in bright lights, much less sell out stadiums. We are talking about a small chorus of hopefuls who, for this debate, were relegated to the opening act because they couldn’t crack 3% in an average of national polls.
However, there is a window of opportunity for one of the candidates standing at the equivalent of the GOP’s “singles table” in Cleveland.
And that would be Carly Fiorina.
Because of what happened less than 15 minutes into the nearly 90 minutes of candidates’ chatter.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, Fiorina’s an overseer at the Hoover Institution, where I’m employed.)
After taking the obligatory pot-shot at Donald Trump for donating to both Clintons’ causes, Fiorina demonstrated both a Realpolitik grasp and a rhetorical succinctness – skills not often display in the current crop of Republicans – in acknowledging that there’s something bigger afoot in this election than one magnate’s ego.
In Fiorina’s words: “[Trump] is the party’s frontrunner right now and good for him. I think he’s tapped into an anger that people feel – they’re sick of politics as usual. You know, whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hope would be resolved, the political class has failed you. That’s just a fact and that’s what Donald Trump has tapped into.”
Such is the stuff of wise debate tactics. By alluding to “the political class,” Fiorina instantly separated herself from the six current and former incumbents standing astride her on the Cleveland stage. As for “anger”: along with the electorate’s appetite for celebrity-born bluff and bravado (California recall election, anybody?), it’s why Trump raked in 26 percent of self-identified Republican primary voters in the latest Fox News Poll.
Fiorina’s gained notice this spring and summer for her harsh critiques of Hillary Clinton. That line of attack scores with small crowds of activists for who mention of Mrs. Clinton is fingernails on a chalkboard. Besides, the media love the notion of a partisan catfight between Mrs. Clinton and the lone female candidate on the GOP side. But it’s not translating at the national level: for the Fox debate, Fiorina placed 14th in the field of 17 contenders.
The question: with only a month remaining before CNN likewise chooses the top-ten Republicans for its Sept. 16 debate at the Reagan Library, what can she do to leapfrog four spots?
How about message tweaking?
Fiorina should stop focusing on Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider, and instead take advantage of her Republican outsider persona to broaden her conservative and libertarian appeal. She’s one of only three non-politicians in the 2016 GOP field (Ben Carson and Trump being the others). As such, Fiorina can tap into the same dismay over a host of Establishment Republican foibles and failures that has Trump, Carson and Ted Cruz in the upper crust of hopefuls.
Besides, if Fiorina and six other Republicans on that stage watch the video of what transpired in Cleveland, they’ll understand the dire need to avoid a second relegation to second-tier status.
What words best described Thursday’s first Republican debate? Pro-forma conservatism. Boilerplate talking points. Little disagreement. Not much in the way of energy and enthusiasm.
Blame Trump, if you like, for the lack of sizzle. But the fact is, with the exception of Fiorina, it was a panel featuring two candidates who missed their chance in 2012 (Rick Perry and Rick Santorum); one senator maybe angling to be the next Secretary of Defense (Lindsey Graham); one governor buried in field of eight other Republicans with the same job title (Bobby Jindal); two former governors who are, for all practical purposes, afterthoughts (George Pataki and Jim Gilmore).
That alone should motivate Carly Fiorina to crack the top-ten in Los Angeles.
With persistence and a few lucky breaks over the next month, maybe she gets to join the headline act.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.