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November 9, 2023

Five Candidates Try to Separate From the Pack

There were plenty of zingers and disagreements in last night’s Republican presidential debate.

The leading elephant still wasn’t in the room last night, but there was another Republican presidential debate among those who hope to become either the chief alternative to Donald Trump or his running mate.

The stage was reduced to just five contenders — in order of national polling average, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson failed to make the stage, and former Vice President Mike Pence recently dropped out. Fewer candidates made for a better debate, and we hope the next debate features fewer still.

As usual, there were plenty of fireworks as candidates went after opponents. We’ll hit on that a bit, while focusing on a couple of the biggest issues.

If you didn’t know that Haley and Ramaswamy deeply dislike each other, you do now. In a heated exchange over policy regarding China and social media data during which Ramaswamy went after Haley’s daughter as a TikTok user, she called him “just scum.” Ramaswamy, who tends toward what some characterize as isolationist, slammed the more hawkish Haley as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” They’re “five-inch heels,” retorted Haley, and “they’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”

But let’s face it — there’s little substantive policy differences among these five candidates. The real contest is over tactical differences or disagreements about emphasis, and about personality.

Some policy differences, however, are substantive. Much of the debate focused on foreign policy because, well, the world is kind of a wreck right now under the feckless leadership of Joe Biden. And the disagreement largely centered on Ukraine. Haley and Christie want to stand firm or even ramp up our aid for the country in the face of Russian aggression. Ramaswamy is highly skeptical of such aid, while DeSantis and Scott seemed somewhere in the middle.

Ramaswamy raised some eyebrows by insulting Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy,” he said. “It has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks — a comedian in cargo pants, the man called Zelensky — doing it in their own ranks.” If you follow the news, you knew — and his campaign quickly clarified — that Ramaswamy meant to refer to the former SS officer applauded by the Canadian Parliament in the presence of Zelensky, who is Jewish. Even so, one of Vladimir Putin’s key propaganda points is that he’s just fighting Nazis in Ukraine. Of course, an old Soviet KGB guy would say that.

GOP advocates of aiding Ukraine don’t pretend that the country is a model of anything. The reason to help is not rewarding good behavior but advancing strategic U.S. interests.

As for domestic policy, abortion led the way. Our Emmy Griffin covers strategy considerations today after Tuesday’s disappointing election results, and the candidates on stage last night delved into it as well. All five are pro-life, and all five want to work against the culture of death. How best to do that is, as always, the crux of the debate.

Scott wants a “15-week national limit” on abortion. Haley wants to “focus on how to save as many babies as we can,” but she doesn’t want to promise something that can’t be delivered “when we don’t even have the votes in the Senate.” Christie took the federalist position that it should be up to the states, not Congress.

What we wish Republicans would emphasize is that we’re one of just seven nations in the world — including the communist utopias of China, Vietnam, and North Korea — that allow elective abortion after 20 weeks. To ban it after even some of our European allies do is hardly extreme. DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban in Florida, perhaps came closest by slamming Democrats for refusing to “identify the point at which there should be any protection all the way up until birth.”

That is extreme, and Republicans simply must improve at explaining their own position in contrast with the Democrats’ bloodlust.

If anyone is wondering, Trump once described himself as “very pro-choice” before running for president, when he became what he calls the “most pro-life president ever.” He could take credit for appointing three of the Supreme Court justices who helped rightly overturn Roe v. Wade, but he mostly doesn’t. Instead, he seems to argue that Republicans are losing because they’re being too pro-life.

Of course, what Trump says at any given moment isn’t nearly as important as that it’s him saying it.

For people who don’t believe Trump should simply be coronated, it’s frustrating to see him skip yet another GOP debate in favor of a simultaneous event to compete for attention. Yet it seems to be a brilliant political calculation. Trump has decided that his vast polling lead means he doesn’t have to bother giving the other candidates the time of day. And until poll respondents say otherwise, why would he change?

The real test will come when voters start casting primary ballots. Is Trump’s support really as strong as it seems? Will a thinning field of challengers help one rise to truly present a threat to Trump?

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