Some political insiders have dismissed the upcoming debate for second-tier Republican presidential candidates as the "kids' table" debate. But for the low-ranking hopefuls who take part, the kids' debate might turn out to be as big an opportunity to move ahead as the first-tier faceoff scheduled for later on Thursday. For five reasons:
1) Donald Trump won't be involved. The top 10 debate is in grave danger of becoming the Trump show. Even top GOP candidates' performances will be evaluated relative to Trump, making it harder for them to make a good impression on their own.
2) The second-tier debate will be less personality-driven, meaning it will more likely focus on substance, and on the single goal most important to GOP audiences: defeating Hillary Clinton. Republican voters like candidates who concentrate more on beating Democrats than bickering with each other.
3) A presidential debate is a big deal, no matter what time it is. Sure, the primetime session will have a larger audience, but Fox News has a big audience at 5 p.m., when the first debate happens. A good performance at 5 p.m. could well be worth more than a mediocre one at 9 p.m.
4) The winner of the kids' table debate won't stay at the kids' table. "At least one or two of the (second-tier) debate candidates will be strong by the Iowa caucus, and one or two of the primetime participants will have collapsed," says Newt Gingrich, whose commanding debate performances led him to the top of the Republican pack in 2011-2012.
5) It's a social media opportunity. Second-tier debate participants, notes Gingrich, will be just as able as those in the big debate to cherry-pick their best moments and use them to build enthusiasm among their supporters.
Right now, the earlier debate will include Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki as well as Rick Perry, who appears to have fallen out of the top 10 in recent polls. Three governors, two senators and a CEO -- it's an impressive group of candidates.
Sure, they all would rather be at the top 10 debate. "Yes, there is a stigma," says Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, a veteran of the presidential wars. "No candidate would choose to be sent to the kids' table. Debates are alpha-dog battles."
But this time, missing out on the alpha-dog battle might not be a bad thing. If coverage of the primetime debate is anything like coverage of the lead-up to the debate, Trump could dominate all. Come debate night, if Trump is outrageous, that will be the story. If he is modest and deferential (an admittedly unlikely scenario), that will be the story. If his answers are brilliant, that will be the story. If his answers are dumb, that will be the story.
Primetime debate candidates "have to have an effective way to move Trump from the center of attention and get the attention back on their message and issues that matter to the Republican Party," notes Brett O'Donnell, a respected GOP debate expert who this time around is assisting Lindsey Graham, "and then to go after Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as opposed to making it a mud wrestling match."
That's a difficult task, and it's safe to say some primetime candidates will fail at it. For some, it might be better to be at the kids' table.
Being in the second-tier debate does carry one serious danger, notes Castellanos, and that is a poor performance that tells voters the candidate deserves to stay in the second tier.
"The job remains the same, and is even more important at the kids' table: Run big," says Castellanos. "In a crowded field, it is more important that you run big, look presidential, to lift yourself out of the pack. The wrong strategy would be to run small, get into 'mommy, he hit me first' battles with other candidates, and make yourself even more of a kid."
For the candidates involved, there's no appealing name for the 5 p.m. debate. Nobody likes "kids' table" or alternatives, like "B-team" debate. Lindsey Graham has taken to calling it the "happy hour debate," which is probably as good as any. But it's going to be a very serious affair.
When it's over, some of the kids' table candidates are going to be on their way to bigger things.