Republican presidential hopefuls took to the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, last night to sell their brands to the American public. During the September 27 debate, seven contenders answered questions, avoided questions, and attacked opponents in an effort to stand out from the crowd and, ultimately, free themselves of the shadow of former President Donald Trump, who remains more than 40 points ahead of the field.
“As moderators, we’ll focus on asking strong questions that matter most to you, the American people. But it is up to the candidates to make their case as to why they are the best one for the job,” co-host Dana Perino noted before the debate started. And while many of the questions throughout the event were certainly topical, they were not, perhaps, the questions that most matter to Republican voters.
Touching briefly on some of the key issues facing Americans, the angles appeared overly specific and designed to appeal more to a “both sides” crowd rather than the people who will actually be voting for a GOP candidate. But who won the show and who lost? And are any candidates on the verge of folding up their tents and heading home the way of Asa Hutchinson, who failed to qualify for this round of debates?
A Ramaswamy Pivot?
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – despite bringing a lot of energy to the stage – failed to make the same impression that he did in the initial GOP debate. As Liberty Nation reported after the first showdown, the young hopeful “remained collected throughout – even against [former New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie’s less-than-pointed attacks – and seemed to understand the crowd better than any of his opponents.” The most common criticism from the legacy media at the time was that he was too combative.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid such a label this time around, Ramaswamy began the night trying to find common ground with the other attendees – a decision that did not appear to pay dividends. He offered an olive branch to his competitors, saying that many of them will likely be serving in some cabinet capacity in the future, and quoted President Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” The primary competitors, apparently, did not feel the same sense of kinship and took aim at Ramaswamy throughout the night.
A high point for the young candidate was that he had the final word of the evening. In response to Christie’s stance that he would vote Donald Trump off the primary island, Ramaswamy concluded the event by saying:
“I think Trump was an excellent president, but the America First agenda does not belong to one man. It does not belong to Donald Trump; it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to you, the people of this country. And the question is, who is going to unite this country and take the America First agenda to the next level.
“When we rallied behind the cry to ‘Make America Great Again,’ we did not just hunger for a single man. We hungered for the unapologetic pursuit of excellence.”
A Fine Line for DeSantis?
Touting his record in the Sunshine State with very specific examples, DeSantis was thick and fast with the figures. He managed to take most questions and turn them to real-world impacts and solutions that he has adopted in Florida. From immigration to border control, he provided solid answers and rebuffed his on-stage critics in an effective manner. “I’m the only one up here who has gotten in the big fights and delivered big wins,” he stated – a point that hit home with the crowd.
And yet, in an effort to win against the other candidates, he also took jabs at Donald Trump for failing to appear on the debate stage. “Where’s Joe Biden? He’s completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action; he should be on the debate stage tonight.” It certainly played well as a “zinger” moment, but it remains a politically risky move – and not only because it invites a response from the man himself.
While DeSantis and co. were decrying The Donald’s lack of participation (and, implicitly, his leadership), Trump was contemporaneously addressing the Clinton Township in Michigan on the night’s first topic – the UAW strike. Speaking to the assembled crowd, he made his case for re-election:
“If you want to save your livelihoods and your way of life, then you need to send a message and join the ultimate strike against the globalist class by casting your vote for a gentleman known as Donald J. Trump.”
Burgum Surprises, Pence Fades, and Christie Name Calls
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum managed the impossible for a candidate unknown by an estimated 90% of the electorate – he managed to distinguish himself. Following the DeSantis habit of using his personal experience and success to answer questions, he surprised the viewers by making the most of his limited time and dealing directly with the issues presented. Burgum engaged in very little back and forth, and was, in turn, largely ignored by the other candidates … A move they may regret should he qualify for the third debate.
Former VP Mike Pence, on the other hand, failed to distinguish himself. He had pat answers to most questions, but referred to his professional successes in the White House that voters may consider the doing of the former commander-in-chief rather than his number two. With solid name recognition and a long track record as a stable conservative voice, Pence will almost certainly continue his campaign until the end. The problem for the former Indiana governor is whether the personality that so suited him as vice presidential material is translatable into the top spot.
Chris Christie appears to have no interest in winning the GOP nomination; his role is simply to pan Donald Trump at every opportunity. The former NJ governor slapped himself on the back after delivering a heavily scripted line calling out 45 for not attending. He said that if Trump “keeps ducking” the debates, he is no longer going to call him Donald Trump, but “Donald Duck.” The line failed to land despite Christie’s wry grin of self-congratulation at the delivery. In fact, a brief perusal of social media reactions suggest that such an obvious attempt at a political zinger was rather too cringe-worthy for even diehard anti-Trumpers. Trump responded in a post-debate message to Fox News, “Anybody that would come up with that nickname shouldn’t be running for president.”
A South Carolina Standoff
Senator Tim Scott and the former Governor who first appointed him to Congress, Nikki Haley, both sought to make waves in this debate. Scott successfully showed a little fire – something that was missing from his prior performance, and Haley doubled down as the self-proclaimed adult on the stage. Yet the familiarity of the two South Carolinans bred a certain level of barely restrained contempt as the candidates took swipes at each other on more than one occasion. Leaving the moderators slack-jawed, Scott and Haley aired grievances more suited to a back-bar discussion than a debate stage, doing their respective campaigns few favors.
However, in politics, a little energy can go a long way, and the verbal sparring may end up keeping them both in the public interest spotlight.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich posed the idea that contenders were trying to gain the subtle notice of anti-Trump donors in the hope of drawing cash infusions. He wrote, “If someone hits a home run with language, ideas, and/or attitude, a substantial number of disheartened and despairing anti-Trump donors may notice — and decide to write really big checks.” This untapped money bank was almost certainly “top of mind” for Nikki Haley, who made her pitch as a “commonsense conservative” unwilling to become Trump 2.0. Scott, on the other hand, could be in a good position for the number two spot if Trump becomes the nominee.
Prior to the debate, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) made clear who he thought would be the winner. “Clearly, Joe Biden walks away with this debate, and then Donald Trump. It’s just the JV team” he said referring to the evening’s primary hopefuls. While the governor is politically obliged to hand an unearned victory to his party’s nominee, his point about Trump is well made.
The latest RealClearPolitics aggregate has Trump beating his GOP rivals by 42 points, and even beating Joe Biden in the general election by 1.4%. Fox host Jesse Watters ran a poll on X (nee Twitter) after the debate asking who won – more than 60% chose Donald Trump despite him not even being on the stage; a distant second was DeSantis on almost 20 points.
If Donald Trump can weather his legal battles for long enough, all the numbers suggest he will be the nominee, meaning his rivals either don’t believe the figures, think he will be “indisposed,” or are setting out their platforms for future office. And to many viewers, that’s what this second GOP primary debate felt like: window shopping for potential future purchases.