Never has a fight for second place been so nasty–and lively.
With the party’s 800-pound gorilla taking a pass on the first presidential skirmish, most of the eight rivals who made the cut tore into each other like hungry wolves.
It was a delicious two hours, if only because it allowed the top contenders to get a public hearing without Donald Trump’s antics and baggage overshadowing them.
Americans got an uninterrupted view of the Republicans competing to be the one alternative to the former president without having to weigh each one against him–or his nicknames for them.
Still, with a few exceptions, notably Chris Christie and Nikki Haley, the GOP rivals were pussycats when it came to dissecting Trump, reflecting the fact that they haven’t figured out how to criticize the former president without alienating his supporters.
No badges of courage there.
Christie, the former New Jersey Governor, made the biggest, most forceful effort to go after Trump head-on, but got heavily booed by the Milwaukee audience and seemed chastened.
In fairness, dancing around Trump and his enormous bloc of support with care is probably smart politics for the time being, but one result is that there was no clear breakout performance that would shake up the race and annoint a clear challenger.
So a gaggle of single-digit candidates marches on, with just a few polling points separating five or six contenders for second place.
That’s not surprising at this stage, with nearly five months to go before the Iowa caucuses. But a day of reckoning must be coming–or Trump will waltz to the nomination.
He’s not going to hand the prize to anyone. Someone will have to take it from him.
Who that is was not obvious Wednesday night.
The biggest surprise was how Vivek Ramaswarmy became the lightning rod.
The 38-year-old Indian-American entrepreneur, who boasted that he’s the only candidate who has pledged to pardon Trump of any criminal convictions, was as a result treated as something of a surrogate for the former president.
That statement and his America-First populism about reducing foreign aid, including to Ukraine and Israel, drew a lot of heat from former Vice President Mike Pence, Christie and Haley. Ramaswarmy’s recent rise in the polls gave them reason to come gunning for him and they were prepared.
In response, he was quick with the quip and gave as good as he got, and the heated back-and-forth made him seem as if the others viewed him as the most serious contender.
The passion he showed and the animus he generated explains why some Trump supporters believe he would make a good running mate for the former president.
Sen. Tim Scott acquitted himself well with solid statements and answers, likely keeping his hopes alive but without leapfrogging the field.
As for Ron DeSantis, the former frontrunner did nothing that would halt his slide.
That’s not to say he had a bad night, but the standard and stakes are higher for him at this point. He’s got to find a way to get voters to give him a second look after months of disappointment.
Nonetheless, he was solid in singling out weak prosecutors, saying he removed two in Florida, and was aggressive on the southern border problem, saying he would send reinforcements for the border patrol on “day one.”
He took a shot at Trump without mentioning his name, saying he would have fired Dr. Anthony Fauci over the advice to shut down the economy.
But otherwise, DeSantis did not distinguish himself and a one-on-one showdown with Trump looks unlikely absent a rejuvenation.
Party rules will make it tougher to qualify for future debates, and that’s a good thing. Having five or six people on the stage instead of eight would tighten the focus and tension and enable moderators to dig deeper into positions.
Even at two hours, the time crunch produced answers that often seemed to skim the surface of complex issues.
There was also too little focus on Joe Biden. With so much firepower aimed at each other, the candidates did a mediocre job of explaining to independent voters why Biden was a disaster.
Only two mentioned the Hunter Biden scandal, and none linked it to the president. That was a missed opportunity to remind the audience of the ultimate stakes.
Notably, there was too little focus on Joe Biden. With so much firepower aimed at each other, the candidates did a mediocre job of explaining to independent voters why Biden was a disaster.
Only two mentioned the Hunter Biden scandal, and none linked it to Joe Biden. That, too, was a missed opportunity to remind the audience of the stakes.
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