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It was brutal to be in the "kids' table" debate

Bobby Jindal talks to reporters in the spin room Thursday.
Bobby Jindal talks to reporters in the spin room Thursday.
Jonathan Allen/Vox

CLEVELAND — For a moment Thursday night, Bobby Jindal looked like the next president of the United States. Fresh off attacking radical Islam and Planned Parenthood with equal zeal in the Republican primary debate here, he got mobbed by dozens of reporters as he walked into the post-debate spin room. They wanted to know more about his pledge to sic the IRS and Justice Department on Planned Parenthood. He was the hot story — until Carly Fiorina appeared in the far corner and most of the Jindal horde raced over to her.

One of the handful of remaining reporters asked how Jindal could hope to compete for the nomination when he was relegated to the "kids' table" — the media shorthand for the debate featuring Republicans who didn't make the cut for the main GOP showdown later Thursday night. The ignominy of being an also-ran in the consolation debate must have settled in pretty quickly for the Louisiana governor.

"This was the first debate, not the last debate," he offered, before dodging the humiliating question of whether he would stick around to watch the real contenders debate.

And Jindal's experience wasn't the worst: Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore stood alone, save for photographers charged with getting his picture, until one person with a camera gamely asked a question.

For everyone other than Fiorina — who was rated the hands-down winner by many observers on site and in their living rooms — there was no sugarcoating the brutality of riding the bench in a presidential primary. Life, Thomas Hobbes observed, is nasty, brutish, and short. For B-listers, Thursday night was nasty, brutish, and long — 75 minutes on stage, followed by nearly an hour in the spin room, a two-hour wait for the main debate, and then watching, or not watching, the big show they all believed they belonged in.

The crowd around Carly Fiorina made it impossible to see her from a short distance.

Jonathan Allen/Vox

"The trouble with the 'happy hour' debate is these folks are under pressure to throw a bomb or to light a fire, which isn't the default speed for many of these candidates," said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and political strategist. "Carly was one of the only ones to really come in with a clear goal of making waves."

Even the questions were rougher than usual

It's not perfectly true all the time, but usually a moderator's willingness to rip a candidate to shreds is in direct inverse proportion to that candidate's likelihood of being the next president. It's not that front-running candidates avoid tough questions. But those questions are usually framed a little more respectfully.

Not at the kids' table.

Reporters watch Rick Perry of Texas in the consolation debate.

Jonathan Allen/Vox

The first question went to Rick Perry, who was the highest-polling candidate to miss the cut for the real debate. Bill Hemmer, reminding the audience that Perry lost in 2012, asked, "Why should someone vote for you now?"

"Americans are going to see that I'm ready," Perry said.

It went downhill from there.

Martha McCallum asked Fiorina if it was "a stretch" to have compared herself to Margaret Thatcher. Fiorina did better than Perry, noting that some presidents had started out with low numbers in national polls.

Then Hemmer put the hammer to Rick Santorum.

"Has your moment passed, senator?" he asked.

There's no good answer to that question.

Betsy Fischer Martin, executive in residence at American University's school of public affairs and the longtime executive producer of Meet the Press, said the whole debate had the moribund feel of "the Republican response to the State of the Union."

Jindal's response to the 2009 State of the Union was roundly panned and may have prevented him from becoming the prominent national figure he had hoped to be.

His consolation Thursday night: dinner with other kids' table contestants.