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No matter where one stands on former President Donald Trump, the one thing we can all agree on is that he is great at taking up the oxygen in a room, a news cycle, or a political party. On Wednesday night in Milwaukee, we had the chance to see what eight other candidates could do with a little room to breathe.
At turns pugilistic, substantive, and illuminating, they sparred for two hours in front of a crowd of thousands.
It is a strange political dynamic to have an event that is simultaneously the main event and an undercard because of the front-runner’s absence from the stage. But it also happens pretty often that the undercard is the most entertaining fight of the night, particularly if the champ doesn’t bother to show. Such was the case on Wednesday as each fighter vied to show the underpinnings of a candidacy that can break from the crowd to get within striking distance of Trump.
So, how did they do? Here are my top takeaways.
All eyes were on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the longtime second-place candidate, coming off one campaign reboot and trailing by some 30-40 points depending on the poll. This debate performance was widely seen as do or almost die for him.
DeSantis had the most striking moment of the first half of the debate when he short-circuited a raise-your-hands question on man-made climate change with the retort, “We are not schoolchildren,” before launching into his experience being on the ground dealing with natural disasters. That pivot would preview DeSantis’ strategy throughout the debate. Paraphrased, it goes something like this: “Gimme a topic, any topic. Yeah, I did that thing. Let me tell you what I did. It happened in Florida. Results.”
He was maybe a bit shout-y for some people’s tastes but relentlessly on message, going back over and over to what he had done in Florida, by preserving civil liberties during COVID, fighting to keep schools open and fighting for curriculum changes, and sprinkling in his own military service.
Will it close the gap? My gut says it wasn’t punchy enough to move the polls much, but certainly lets him live to fight another day with a solid performance.
Quick on his feet and thriving in the attention economy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur was rising in polls coming to the stage. His opponents responded accordingly making him the target of many an attack. A lot of them landed.
Nikki Haley’s exclamation, “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows!” both burnished her foreign policy credentials and illuminated a divide in the party while Gov. Chris Christie jabbed Ramaswamay for using a recycled Obama line about a “skinny guy with a funny name.”
Even Pence got a good burn in when Ramaswamay delivered a canned line about canned lines and the former veep asked, “Is that one of yours?”
Did I mention Ramaswamay is good at getting attention? For all the pummeling, and there was plenty, he is a good talker and distinguished himself from the older members of his party by being very skeptical on Ukraine, declaring this a “dark moment” for the U.S. in contrast to tried-and-true “Morning in America” messaging, and hitting cultural issues GOP voters care about, as he did with a explication on absent fathers.
Despite obvious weaknesses on foreign policy, he is speaking to the electorate and will likely pick up momentum. But I’m not sure what difference it makes if he never differentiates himself from Trump.
The man loves to punch and his first victim was Ramaswamay. The former New Jersey governor put blood in the water for the other candidates, as he is wont to do.
A skilled debater, one pivot from his record on guns to the need to hold fortunate sons like Hunter Biden accountable for their gun crimes was a crowd pleaser.
I’m putting Christie in the top tier of these debate results because he drove parts of the debate, opened attack lines that other candidates piled on, and was strongest on stage when going after Trump, who is after all, everyone’s competition. If you can’t prosecute the case against the front-runner, how do you win?
Dignified and statesmanlike, the former vice president also showed skills honed on talk radio with an occasional, unexpected quip, like when he joked that maybe everyone in Washington should be subject to a mental competency test.
He forcefully made the case for his actions on Jan. 6, which he said were a fulfillment of an oath of office, but also an oath to God.
You got the feeling Pence is in this race to say exactly that and he is unmistakably sincere in saying it. I would bet some people walked away liking him more than they thought they would tonight.
Happy to polish her foreign policy creds on Ramaswamay’s pocket square, Haley did not dominate the conversation, but found her moments all night.
Who can argue with a Margaret Thatcher quote: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
In a wide-ranging and refreshing discussion of abortion policy between the candidates, they wrestled with how to balance morality, liberty, federalism, and pluralism. Haley distinguished herself from the crowd with a plea for “consensus” and a call for realism and honesty about what can be done on a federal level.
It is not the expected answer for a Republican primary but may be one that attracts moderate donor money with its potential to pivot to a general electorate.
Huge points to the governor of North Dakota for getting out there and performing solidly even though he injured his Achilles playing basketball and was either in the emergency room or on crutches all day.
Burgum has the softer tone DeSantis lacks and is good at weaving stories into his policy points. He didn’t get much talking time, but those who listened probably came away with a positive feeling.
Scott has the same winsome nature and tone as Burgum, and his talk of the American dream, having come from an impoverished upbringing, is compelling. That being said, we didn’t hear much from him tonight. For both Burgum and Scott, the problem is the GOP electorate is not looking for a happy warrior. They’re just looking for warriors.
Meh. He earned his spot on the stage but didn’t do much with it.
Does any of it matter given the “elephant not in the room,” as Fox News anchor Bret Baier called him, was on his way to Georgia to turn himself in in the wake of his fourth indictment instead of on the stage on Wednesday? That remains to be seen, but if you want to remain the champ, you have to get in the arena to throw punches at some point.