Low-polling Republican presidential candidates took the stage at 7 p.m. Thursday in Des Moines for the undercard debate. In its early minutes, the discussion focused on Donald Trump. The candidates onstage lamented that Trump had taken so much of the media's attention away from them.
"This debate was called the undercard debate. The undercard debate. It wasn't advertised significantly," said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, in his first chance to speak in the debate. He lamented that Fox News had spent the previous hour talking about whether Trump would follow up on a threat to stay away. "An entertainer" had captured everyone's attention, Santorum said. "The entire lead-up to this debate was about whether Donald Trump was going to show up for the next debate."
Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, expressed frustration that he had not had the same success this time around. He blamed the media, who he said had marginalized him by refusing to ask voters about him in opinion polls, and by relegating him to undercard debates like this one.
Later, Santorum said he had made 700 political appearances in Iowa over the last five years.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, the lowest-polling candidate in the undercard, complained of a conspiracy to sideline him, to benefit other candidates on the undercard stage.
"There are powerful forces that are really controlling our lives," Gilmore said. "The biggest one is the organized establishment media. And I just noticed, just now, you gave Carly Fiorina two one-minute answers in a row."
Gilmore had been kept out of the past five undercards because his poll numbers were so low. But moderator Bill Hemmer pointed out that Gilmore had not even appeared in Iowa to campaign until a week ago.
"This is not the place where I choose to begin my campaign. I am beginning my campaign in New Hampshire," Gilmore said.
He also took a shot at Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who were both scheduled to appear at the Trump rally later in the evening. Gilmore said he came from a humble background: his father was a meat-cutter at a Safeway grocery store, his mother a secretary. "I'm not about to go across and carry the coat for some billionaire," Gilmore said.
Rather than addressing Trump's absence, Fiorina, the former tech executive, attacked Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, calling her dishonest and saying that Clinton deserved to be "in the Big House," or prison, for her use of a personal email server to handle government data.
Fiorina, Gilmore, Huckabee and Santorum are all polling below 5 percent and have little chance to win the Iowa caucuses. Each has been overshadowed by Trump, the bombastic billionaire who rose to the top of the GOP field with promises to erect a giant wall on the border with Mexico and to bar Muslim foreigners from entering the country.
Here's are some of the major takeaways from the second-tier debate:
It's not their fault. It's the media.
All four candidates blamed their poor standing in the polls on the media.
"I don't think it's the message isn't working. I think it's the message isn't getting out," Huckabee said, leading off the conversation.
Fiorina called out both Fox News and moderator Martha MacCallum for asking Santorum why he failed to show up for last week's pro-life march in Washington: "It is outrageous, frankly, that Fox News and you would question the pro-life credentials of Rick Santorum."
Santorum's face turned tight as he screamed angrily about his second-tier status.
"This is what the media has been doing," he said, "to take Iowans out of the process."
Don't worry, senator. This may be the last undercard debate.
Though some in this group may stay in the race to further a cause or build name recognition, most will likely be gone soon.
The issues remain the same
These candidates share many positions with the poll leaders. Fiorina touted her three-page tax code and zero-based budget, similar to promises made by others to shrink the federal government. Gilmore, Fiorina and Santorum criticized President Barack Obama's Iran deal, a standard among the poll leaders. Huckabee wants to "obliterate" the Islamic State with military force and financial pressure.
Fiorina sticks with visceral attacks
When confronted with her past promise that she would focus on issues, rather than level personal attacks against Clinton, Fiorina insisted she was doing just that. Then she went on to charge that Clinton had stuck with her husband because she "will do anything to hang and hold onto power."
"If my husband did what Bill Clinton did, I would have left him long ago," Fiorina said.