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Other Candidates Find Ways To Stand Out On Debate Night


And there are other candidates running for the Republican nomination besides Donald Trump, and their names aren't all Jeb Bush. Thursday's Republican presidential debate was a huge opportunity for some real underdog candidates who've been struggling to get their names and their ideas before the voters. NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports on the rest of the field.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, has been running for president all year, and people have hardly noticed. She didn't make the cut for the prime-time debate in Cleveland Thursday. Instead, she was a participant in what even she referred to as the happy hour debate earlier on the same day. Still, she made the most of it.


CARLY FIORINA: At this point in previous presidential elections, Jimmy Carter couldn't win, Ronald Reagan couldn't win, Bill Clinton couldn't win and neither could've Barack Obama. I started as a secretary and became ultimately the chief executive of the largest technology company in the world - almost $90 billion in over 150 countries. I know personally how extraordinary and unique this nation is.

GONYEA: Reviewers praised her performance, calling her focused and unrelentingly tough on President Obama, the nuclear deal with Iran and especially Hillary Clinton. And the morning after, she was widely described as one of the night's big winners without even having been in the prime-time debate. Here's MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski on the "Morning Joe" program.


MIKA BRZEZINSKI: When you get on that debate stage and you're like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, I'm done.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: You like that.

BRZEZINSKI: Joining us now, we have Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.

GONYEA: In the prime-time debate, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was in need of a standout moment. It may have come in response to Donald Trump's claims that the Mexican government is sending massive numbers of its worst citizens illegally into the U.S.


MARCO RUBIO: Let me set the record straight on a couple of things. The first is the evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico. They're coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Those countries are the source of the people that are now coming in its majority.

GONYEA: Then there's Ben Carson. His extremely deliberate manner makes it hard for him to break through. But the debate allowed him to promote his pioneering career as a top neurosurgeon. Thursday night, he noted with a slight chuckle that he was the only one on the stage to separate Siamese twins.


BEN CARSON: The only one to operate on babies while they were still in their mother's womb. The only one to take out half of a brain, although you would think if you go to Washington that someone had beat me to it. But...


GONYEA: Carson says it's a plus that he's not a politician, but being both low-key and lesser-known doesn't help. Finally, barely making the list for the Thursday evening debate was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Being low-key is not his problem. His manner is blunt and unpolished. And he's barely known outside his home state. But he too got some attention this week. When other Republican hopefuls were decrying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, he said while he believes in traditional marriage, the court has ruled.


JOHN KASICH: And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn't think the way I do doesn't mean that I can't care about them or I can't love them.

GONYEA: With some 24 million Americans tuned in Thursday night, a record for a primary debate, a lot of people got to see Kasich speaking his mind. And that kind of attention is exactly what the other underdogs in the race need. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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