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September 28, 2023

Candidates Muddle Along in ‘Oakland’ Debate

In the second Republican debate, a panel of seven GOP hopefuls mostly bickered back and forth and kept each other from standing out.

Call it the Oakland debate — Oakland, because, as Gertrude Stein famously said, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

Indeed, there was no “there” in last night’s debate; no sense that any one of these candidates was about to cut into Donald Trump’s massive lead, no sense that a star was being born before our eyes. There was plenty of bickering, though, and plenty of interrupting, and a few cheap shots — like Nikki Haley saying she gets dumber every time Vivek Ramaswamy opens his mouth — and this sort of behavior, and the candidates’ seemingly irresistible urge to talk over each other, made us want to grab the remote and look for a “Shawshank Redemption” rerun somewhere.

In a debate in which no one candidate appeared to have a great night, Vivek Ramaswamy stood out in another way: as a lightning rod for the other candidates. Or, if we consider that the debate was co-moderated by Fox Business and Univision, whose anchor and co-moderator, Ilia Calderón, had a rash-inducing habit of spouting Democrat talking points disguised as candidate questions. Why, for example, should Mike Pence have to waste his time telling folks what his solution is to the DACA dilemma?

In any case, it was striking how, on Fox News this morning, one café customer after another said the same things. That they weren’t impressed, weren’t moved, didn’t think a particular candidate separated himself even slightly, didn’t see any of them as posing a threat to Trump’s massive lead in the polls. Donald Trump was the winner, said one interviewee after another.

Those Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump were no doubt disappointed by these repetitive responses — because the tie invariably goes to the former president, the elephant not in the room.

“Donald Trump is missing in action,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. “He should be on this stage tonight.” But should he? He’s ahead of DeSantis by a whopping 42 points according to the RealClearPolitics average. What possible benefit could there be to Trump in attending a debate and taking the slings and arrows from seven increasingly desperate challengers?

But in one respect, Trump’s absence is doing his Republican colleagues a favor. How so? Were he there, he’d no doubt suck a lot of oxygen out of the room, in addition to sucking up some additional mic time from the other candidates.

Still, while Trump’s lead nationally appears insurmountable, his lead in the all-important early primary states is much less so. As The Washington Free Beacon reports: “The data from a CBS News/YouGov survey published Tuesday show that 79 percent of Iowa Republican caucus voters are either considering candidates other than Trump or have outright ruled out supporting the former president. Just 20 percent said they are only considering Trump. In New Hampshire, 77 percent of Republicans said they’re looking at candidates besides Trump.”

This is interesting, but it’s also a bit misleading. To lump those considering candidates other than Trump in with those who’ve ruled Trump out entirely suggests that the anti-Trump cohort is much larger than it is. In Iowa, the Never-Trump vote is 31%, while in New Hampshire it’s 34%. All others, it’s safe to assume, are gettable Trump votes, and indeed likely Trump votes or widely dispersed non-Trump votes unless a single alternative candidate really catches fire.

“Polls don’t elect presidents,” thundered DeSantis. “Voters elect presidents. And we’re going to take the case to the people in these early states.”

While it’s certainly true that polls don’t elect presidents, they do tell us something about the likely behavior of voters. And that likely behavior tends to be self-reinforcing, as the “bandwagon” effect has repeatedly shown.

As for the participants last night, DeSantis once again acquitted himself well, although not in any way spectacularly. And it’s hard to see how “well” is going to overcome Trump.

Nikki Haley was forceful again, and she has a good grasp of the issues, but she seems to get a bit shrill when going after Vivek Ramaswamy. Still, it’s not hard to see why folks in Iowa and New Hampshire are giving her a look, and why, if she doesn’t go all “Christie” on Trump, she might be an appealing VP choice to him: She’s a former red-state governor, a former UN ambassador, and a woman’s voice on the day’s most contentious issue, abortion.

Former VP Mike Pence, though, looked like a beaten man. When the topic came to education and the damage being done by Randi Weingarten and the hard-left teachers unions, he made a joke about having slept with a teacher for the past 38 years. And it went thud. It’s sad, too, because in another time and place, his decency, his rock-solid conservative principles, and his deep and abiding Christian faith would’ve made for a great American presidency. In another time and place.

Tim Scott, too, seems sort of out of place in these debates, probably because he’s a far better one-to-one politician than a mass-market candidate. Last night, during a back-and-forth with Ramaswamy, he kept interrupting his colleague to the point where he became downright irritating. Scott seems naturally a gentleman, and these two debates have become increasingly ungentlemanly.

And Doug Bergum, God bless him and heal his torn Achilles’ tendon, he needs to find a better use for his wealth — perhaps to promote STEM learning and technological literacy, which might position him as a commerce secretary or an IT czar in the next Republican administration.

Debate co-moderator Dana Perino asked a fascinating question toward the end of the debate last night, after the candidates were presented with notepads and markers. “It’s now obvious that if you all stay in the race,” she began, “former president Donald Trump wins the nomination. None of you have indicated that you’re dropping out. So which one of you onstage tonight should be voted off the island?”

Nobody bit. “Are you serious?” asked an incredulous Haley.

“With all due respect,” replied DeSantis, “we’re happy to debate. I think that that’s disrespectful to my fellow competitors.”

Even former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — the bulbous blowhard who’d do us all a favor if he packed it in and left the Trump derangement to the Democrats — thought better of taking Perino’s bait after having first grabbed his marker. Seriously, though: What is this guy doing out there besides sowing party disunity and giving aid and comfort to our political enemies? Aside from Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, Christie’s biggest supporters aren’t even nominal Republicans; they’re Trump-hating Democrats. If anyone should be voted off the island, it’s him.

Perino’s point is a good one, but if the Seven Dwarfs are looking to the Republican National Committee for help in winnowing the field, they’re going to be disappointed. As Politico noted last week, the RNC is only slightly raising the participation bar for the third presidential primary debate, scheduled for November 8 in Miami: “The nominally higher requirements released Friday — candidates now need to have 70,000 individual donors and hit 4 percent in either two national polls, or one national poll and two polls from separate early states — could threaten several big names from making it on stage.”

So far, just three of the seven have qualified for the third debate: DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Haley. That leaves out Pence, Christie, Bergum, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. If Trump decides to show up for that debate, and if no one else qualifies, that’ll make for a considerably more focused exchange. Which, for the candidates not named Trump, is just what the doctor ordered.

The question is: Will it be too little medicine, and too late taken?

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