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OPINION: The First Republican Debate, Interesting But Not Game Changing

By Neil Heriot | August 28, 2023

Yesterday evening, Americans turned on Fox News to watch the first Republican presidential primary debate. Since many voters, especially those who are not living in a state with an early primary (such as Iowa and New Hampshire) are not particularly knowledgeable on the candidates, this was their first opportunity to learn about these candidates and see how they compared to each other. It also helped that former President Donald Trump, who is the front-runner in the race, had chosen to skip this debate. This meant that the candidates were free to establish why they were better than Trump, and also highlight his weaknesses without Trump having any chance to directly defend himself.

This did not happen. Trump was discussed in the debate, but there was no serious (or successful) effort to damage Trump. Political commentators and analysts had strongly asserted that this debate was the chance for a candidate to offer a strong and memorable performance to elevate themselves and open up opportunities in the future if beating Trump was not feasible. While some candidates did better than others, none broke out. Even as the candidates argued on live TV, none walked away more powerful and influential than before the debate. Before this debate, Trump was still the guy in first place with no threatening runner-up. He will continue to be in first place, and presently, there will be no serious risk to his campaign after this debate.

When you look at the particularly chaotic moments of the debate, you will probably see one candidate stand out in particular: Vivek Ramaswamy. He was the Trumpiest candidate on that stage out of the eight, unapologetically parroting Trump-talking points that are popular with a large share of the Republican electorate, such as cutting aid for Ukraine and calling climate change a hoax. When the other candidates – particularly Mike Pence, Chris Christie, and Nikki Haley – strongly disagreed, he refused to back down, and fought back against the other candidates with a grin on his face and a fire that is not quite unlike Trump himself. His assertion on America’s “identity crisis,” and general malaise is certainly going to resonate with the voters who voted for Trump in part due to this same malaise.

Undoubtedly, when combined with the status that he is an outsider, that populism is going to endear him to many Republican voters. However, that is also going to turn off many Never-Trumpers, from the few in the Republican party to the much larger number of voters eligible to vote in the general election. We will have to see if his Trump-esque performance, youth, and outsider roots will boost him or doom him.

I would bet on the former; Trump and his ideas have remained popular with the Republican party, and when you combine this with a youth and outsider (which Trump is no longer) that does not carry Trump's personal baggage, that gives him more electability in the primary, and could attract some general election voters that could get behind the ideas but not Donald Trump personally. I strongly think he will overtake Ron DeSantis in second place and become the guy to look at besides Trump, even though he will probably lose.

Speaking of DeSantis, this debate was his chance to offer a memorable and impressive performance to revive his flagging campaign. He did not make a fool of himself on live television, but he did not offer that stunning performance, which is in itself a failure when considering what he needed from this debate. His campaign strategy has been to out-Trump Trump. But in this debate he was out-Trumped by Ramaswamy, and his refusal to offer clear, decisive answers such as on a national abortion ban, supporting Ukraine, and supporting Trump as the nominee, does not paint a picture of a real leader and fighter that he needed to paint. He was left mostly alone in this debate, because the other candidates knew that the threat of DeSantis was already diminishing and was on track to continue, and Ramaswamy had established himself as the bigger threat anyhow.

While Ramaswamy pandered to the far right and DeSantis was a poor man’s Ramaswamy, Haley took the opposite approach and presented herself as a pragmatic conservative. She is a conservative, and established that very clearly, but she managed to prove that she can combine conservative values and ideas to appeal to the Republican base with enough pragmatism and moderation that can win over more moderate, non-Republican voters as well.

I especially liked how she called out the “fiscally conservative” Trump Administration for adding $8 trillion to the debt, her unwavering Ukrainian support, and her admission that absolutist pro-life policies just are not going to happen. Going off of what I have said earlier, I do think that the Republican base will flock to Ramaswamy’s neo-Trumpism over Haley’s pragmatism. If Haley somehow won the nomination, I think this debate shows that she has the greatest potential to be the one to beat President Joe Biden in the fall.

The only other candidate to have a large part in this debate was Pence. He spoke the longest out of everyone, and part of that was his unexpected aggressive behavior in the debate. He frequently spoke beyond his allotted time, and was the most frequent attacker of Ramaswamy. With his outright support for a 15-week abortion ban, he will definitely shore up some more support from those in the Republican party who are pro-life. In addition, with most of his rivals clearly (or reluctantly, in the case of DeSantis) stating he did the right thing on Jan. 6, I think that will give him a small boost of legitimacy. He still has to deal with dislike from both the never-Trumpers who dislike his ties to the Trump administration (which he proudly listed achievements and success of), and the Trump base who consider his actions on Jan. 6, a betrayal, but his fighting and aggression particularly against Ramaswamy show that he still has something to give.

That brings us to the forgettable candidates, of which there are three: Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson, and Doug Burgum. There is really nothing notable about any of these candidates, and they are likely to fade out in the near future. Scott continued his nice guy, sunny, and optimistic persona, and while that certainly makes him more likable in a general election, it did not make him stand out against the populism of Ramaswamy and the pragmatism of Haley (which is going to appeal to the same voters that Scott can appeal to). He will find himself overshadowed and buried by candidates who had a better performance.

Politics is a dirty game, and sometimes candidates are going to have to play a bit dirty if they want to win. Scott did not do that. He kept his head held high, and took the high road in most of the heated moments. That is commendable, and after the chaos of Trump, that should be encouraged. Yet, that is not how you win an election when you come back to today’s circumstances. Even so, he was more memorable than either Hutchinson or Burgum were.

Both of them are currently polling less than 1%. While everyone is doing poorly compared to Trump, when you compare Hutchinson and Burgum to the other non-Trump candidates they are doing exceptionally poorly. They needed to have a strongly convincing performance to begin to catch up, but they were absolutely forgettable, and there are no memorable moments that can be attributed to either of them like one could attribute to Ramaswamy. It also does not help that they, along with Scott, spoke the least out of everyone on the stage, which meant that they had the least amount of time to present and prove themselves. Expect Hutchinson and Burgum to suspend their campaigns soon, and Scott may follow if he cannot change fast.

That leaves the final candidate who is undoubtedly the biggest loser of this debate: Chris Christie. He has been the only candidate who has directly and aggressively attacked Donald Trump. He has taken fire for it, of course, given the well known popularity of Trump, but this debate was the chance for him to fully and brutally attack Trump and show everyone why he should not be the Republican nominee. But instead his attacks were less in power and frequency than they should have been. He was booed by the audience each time he attempted to attack. Christie, alongside Haley and Pence, attacked Ramaswamy, but unlike the other two candidates, Ramaswamy won. He had the potential to severely damage his opponents, but instead he himself took a beating and failed to punch back. To compare, Haley attacked Trump and Ramaswamy (albeit less directly), and the audience had a much more positive reaction.

At the end of the day, not too much will change. Trump will remain the front runner with no credible threat and he escaped this debate relatively unscathed, even though he decided to skip this debate and indirectly tell the voters “You are not worth presenting myself for. I do not need to defend myself in front of you. You will vote for me anyway.”

DeSantis, once regarded as the new face of the Republican party, will continue his decline and find himself overtaken by Ramaswamy, who will certainly get a momentum boost from his performance. Haley’s pragmatism will certainly appeal to moderates both in and out of the Republican party, though it may not be enough to overcome Ramaswamy. Pence put up a better fight than expected, but it still will not deal with the core issue of his campaign: his baggage. Scott, Hutchinson, and Burgum are completely unremarkable and forgettable, with nothing worth saying or keeping an eye out for. Finally, Christie dropped the ball with his performance, and much of his credibility as a Trump critic has been lost.

Things can and will change. Months ago, no one saw that DeSantis would fall as far as he did (and he has not even hit rock bottom yet) or that Ramaswany would become as memorable as he has started to become. But at least in spite of the chaos, voters are able to finally see clear differences in the candidates and begin to make informed decisions about who they prefer. The next Republican debate will take place on Sept, 27, with more difficult requirements to qualify. We will have to watch with interest to see what will happen before and during the second debate. This primary is far from normal, and anything can and will happen.

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