LAS VEGAS — Greetings from the Venetian Las Vegas, where Republican presidential hopefuls will shortly take the stage in the final 2015 event, the CNN/Salem Media Group debate. Wolf Blizter will moderate, while Salem Radio Network host Hugh Hewitt will once again join Dana Bash on the panel. The first round will feature four candidates, as opposed to the nine on stage in the main debate: Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki. This will be Huckabee’s second time at the warm-up act, but he’s making the best of it:
Huckabee is scheduled to appear in the undercard event for the second straight debate on Tuesday night. He has been unable to gain any political oxygen in a race dominated by Donald Trump and featuring other evangelical favorites who have out-muscled past 2008 Iowa caucus winner Huckabee.
“I think we’re going to get more time,” said Huckabee, complaining that he had not received enough opportunities during the first forums. “The one good thing is that I’ll actually get to answer some questions.”
The bad news is that it probably won’t matter. Graham, Santorum, and Pataki have never bounced out of the also-ran category, and those who have managed to get to the main stage from the undercard (Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina) only had to do one warm-up act. Huckabee’s campaign has been eclipsed by younger conservatives like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of whom support the family-values traditions that Huckabee champions, but with more credibility to present-day voters.
The filing-room scuttlebutt early in the day revolved around last night’s Donald Trump event, which turned into a “very weird” experience for reporters. According to two who discussed it with me, Trump’s people kept them penned up through the event, not allowing them to talk with attendees, which one of the reporters estimated at around 2,000 or so. When the event finished, Trump’s campaign security then kept reporters from leaving the pen unless they promised to leave without trying to interview attendees as they were leaving. “What are they afraid of?” one asked. “Ninety to ninety-five percent of them are going to the event to support Trump.” Given the amount of grief given to Hillary Clinton for her media “corral,” one has to wonder when this will become more of an issue for Trump.
Speaking of Trump, expect the undercard to try to make their bones tonight blasting the front-runner for his comments about banning Muslims and just about anything else. They’re running out of time to make themselves relevant, and one has to question just how much longer the RNC’s media partners will offer air time for these consolation-prize events. With Bobby Jindal off the stage, don’t look for frontal attacks on each other, but some — perhaps Lindsey Graham — might go after Ted Cruz too, especially on national security and temperament.
Salem Radio Network will begin its official debate coverage at 5 pm ET, rolling through until 90 minutes after the main event. You can catch the audio stream at HughHewitt.com, where Guy Benson, Katie Pavlich, and I will be contributing to the commentary. In addition, as much as possible, I will be adding updates to this post as the debate unfolds.
Update: Live blog commences …
3:40 pm PT: Pataki goes after Trump as unfit for the presidency. Hey, why not? If Pataki’s lucky, Trump will go after him. But honestly, he’s more likely to get ignored. The other three candidates focused almost entirely on national security in their opening statements.
3:45: Graham: “For God’s sake, pick someone who is worthy of the sacrifice of those who are fighting this war,” he says just after saying he’d support Trump if he wins the nomination. Pataki follows up by calling Trump “the Know Nothing candidate” and says “he cannot be the Republican nominee.” He blames Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for bringing us to this state, however.
3:47: Santorum comes to Trump’s defense, by arguing that Trump was criticizing Obama’s handling of immigration from the Middle East and not Muslims. “Not all Muslims are jihadists,” Santorum says, “but all jihadists are Muslims.” After Graham once again goes after Trump, Santorum says Trump’s proposal isn’t the right policy, but we have to talk about the real problem.
3:54: Santorum, Graham both come out strongly for reinstating NSA access to domestic telecom records. Huckabee expresses skepticism over its effectiveness, but shifts to the decision by DHS not to check social-media postings when vetting visa applicants. “Our goal should be to … put Americans first.”
3:55: Hugh Hewitt asks Pataki about his argument that mosques should be surveilled, asking what limits should be put on those efforts. Pataki says the program stopped “dozens and dozens of attacks.”
3:57: Huckabee says that listening to sermons in a mosque is nothing more than attending public speech, not an invasion of privacy or infringement.
3:58: Hugh asks Santorum about denying 2nd Amendment rights based on a watch list. Santorum opposed it. He then elaborated on the nature of Islam being both a religion and a political movement.
4:05: I’m actually enjoying the responses on the ISIS questions, but they’re a little monotonous; several variations to “I’ll kill them all.” No particular dissent on this issue with these candidates, so maybe it’s time to move on. Graham actually went into a little more detail.
4:09: Graham is rolling his eyes and shaking his head at Santorum’s explanation of why we shouldn’t go into Syria.
4:11: Resolved: Neither Santorum nor Graham are ready to be President, according to their arguments.
4:12: Pataki takes the Saudi anti-terrorism alliance more seriously than I do.
4:15: As an aside, this might be the best wi-fi service at any debate or electoral event I’ve ever covered.
4:18: One of the more interesting side comments in these exchanges is Huckabee’s contention that we should tell younger Americans that “we’re not going to give you anything …. [other than] a chance to get off your butts.”
4:20: This really is going to be an all-foreign-policy debate, it seems.
Also, good point from Jazz:
So far @wolfblitzer is just trying to get Republicans to say how many troops they will put on the ground. Way to prop up Hillary.
— Jazz Shaw (@JazzShaw) December 16, 2015
Including how many Graham would put on the ground in Libya. A better answer to that would be, “If Hillary had put some on the ground when she conducted her coup against Qaddafi, we might not need to put any there now.”
4:27 – Now a debate over Assad and whether we can trust Russia. “I miss George W. Bush!” Graham declared. “I’m tired of people walking all over the president!”
4:29 – Pataki then goes after Hillary for “her failed time as Secretary of State.” Mentions of Hillary have been curiously spotty in this debate.
4:32 – Seems like an age since Hugh and Dana got in a question, but he’s back with a question to Huckabee on sanctions for countries that won’t fight ISIS. Hugh suggests Indonesia and Malaysia, who have been US allies, and Huckabee says “Why not?”
4:35 – Graham goes after Ted Cruz over Iran and Russia, and uses an almost inexplicable Princess Bride reference: “Princess Buttercup would not like this.”
4:38 – Pataki: “Under Obama and Hillary … we have had nothing but weakness [in regard to] Russia.”
4:40 – Graham and Huckabee reject the idea of a draft, but Huckabee argues for more incentives for recruitment.
4:44 – Santorum says he will reverse the decision to open combat positions to women, calling the decision “political” and “social engineering.” Pataki disagrees, and says women should be able to get those positions if they are capable of fulfilling the mission.
4:50 – Heading off to the spin room. I’ll have more later during the main debate.