How Lower-Tier GOP Candidates Can Make The Most Of The 'Happy Hour' Debate

Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal won't step onto the main stage of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, for the first major 2016 Republican presidential debate on Thursday evening.

But left-out 2016 contenders relegated to an earlier debate—an event that Lindsey Graham has dubbed "the Happy Hour Debate"—want the world to know: That doesn't mean they can't win the White House.

After finding out that their candidates failed to qualify for the headlining GOP debate hosted by Fox News, Fiorina's and Jindal's campaigns were quick to downplay its importance and to deliver a message that the White House hopefuls are keeping an eye on the ultimate prize.

But Republican strategists warn that missing the first prime-time debate could do serious damage.

"Does it sort of put your campaign on life support? Yes, it does," Ford O'Connell, GOP consultant and former campaign adviser to John McCain, said. "You want to be in the top-tier debate."

Strategists say that there's still a chance that a breakout performance at the early event could help a candidate like Fiorina climb high enough in the polls to make it to CNN's prime-time debate next month.

"If you do well, you could be in the top tier in the next go around, because chances are someone on the main stage will trip and fall, too," O'Connell said. "It's still on Fox. It's still on national television. It's still a big deal."

The challenge for candidates who miss the prime-time event but still show up for the earlier debate will be to make a splash without going overboard.

Read more from Clare Foran at NationalJournal

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Analysis & Political Strategy