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GOP Debate – Little to Win, Everything to Lose

Opportunity came knocking, but did anyone hear the door?

The fourth GOP debate, held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, last night, December 6, was the final national setting for primary candidates to lure voters to their particular cause. It was the last chance to make a strong impression in a side-by-side comparison and engage voters in their passions and policy proposals. Opportunity came knocking, but did anyone hear the door?

Stories often run in a three-act structure, with the protagonist arriving in the third act ready to face the final hurdle. If the story has been well told, the events of the second act would have offered our hero lessons to learn, which, by their nature, provide a helping hand to the ultimate third-act resolution. Sadly for the hopeful candidates, it appears they skipped the second act entirely and went straight from set up to conclusion without learning a thing.

The Haley Disconnect

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been on the receiving end of some superb press of late. Not only has the left-leaning media machine left her largely unscathed, but she has also benefitted from what can only be described as wilful poll blindness. As Liberty Nation described in the prelude to last night’s event:

“If one were to listen to the cable TV talking heads, it would appear that Nikki Haley is in the ascendency and has relegated Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to an ignominious third place. The numbers, however, tell a different story.

“According to the national polling, she remains behind DeSantis – not in front of him. DeSantis is averaging 13% against Haley’s 10%. In Iowa and Nevada, the Florida insurgent maintains a healthy lead, whereas in South Carolina and New Hampshire, Haley claims the second spot. Overall, she has not made any huge strides and has not increased her average polling rate during the last month.”

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(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Polling aside, Haley’s most significant issue at present is not poll blindness but tone-deafness when it comes to what the party faithful want. At one point during the debate, responding to a Ron DeSantis jibe about her liberal Wall Street donors, she proudly declared: “He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him, and now they support me.” In the 2007 Republican Party, such a statement would have gone over well; in 2023, it dropped like a lead balloon.

Indeed, Nikki Haley’s big business support may be more a hindrance than a help to her popularity. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon urged voters of all stripes to get behind the Haley campaign, saying, “Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley, too… Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump.”

And there’s more. Founder of LinkedIn and notable Democrat donor Reid Hoffman offered a helping hand to the Haley campaign to the tune of $250,000. Explaining his rationale, he pointed out that he will “enthusiastically vote” for President Joe Biden in the 2024 election but said his “first priority is American democracy and the integrity of our legal system.”

“That means my first priority is to defeat Trump, and the primary is the first of two chances to do so,” Hoffman concluded.

His point is simple: Back Haley, get Biden. It’s a message that American voters understand all too well. That the former governor can’t see the damage such endorsements do to her campaign seems a failure of imagination on her part. As the old Japanese proverb says, “When the character of a person is not clear, look at their friends.”

DeSantis On the Ropes?

Of the four contenders, only Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appears to have learned any useful life lessons during his campaign. He steered clear of overt attacks on Trump and his four years in the White House, instead only pointing out that “Father Time is undefeated.”

The debate began with host Megyn Kelly asking DeSantis if he should drop out of the race. “So we have a great idea in America that the voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters. I’m sick of hearing about these polls, because I remember those polls in November of 2022,” DeSantis replied. “They said there was going to be a big red wave. It was going to be monumental. And that crashed and burned. The one place it didn’t crash and burn was in the state of Florida.”

New Banner Political Power PlaysAnd this was his key pitch for the evening, touting his record of being Florida’s chief executive. It was an effective strategy that allowed him to pivot away from attacks, steer clear of Trump comparisons, and parry personal jibes.

DeSantis is running a competent campaign and putting in solid performances at GOP debates including his efforts in the the risky governor debate against California’s Gavin Newsom last week. What he is failing to do is make the case for why voters should choose him over Donald Trump. It’s a political tightrope where one slip could be fatal.

Christie Unravels

Qualification for this fourth and final debate was as close as it is possible to be for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In fact, other than in New Hampshire, he is hard-pressed to break 3%. But that doesn’t really matter for Mr. Christie, as his attendance was not to secure popularity or support for his campaign but rather to launch tirades against a man he clearly despises.

“There’s no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump,” Christie argued. “This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him.” Self-reflection appears not to be one of the former governor’s chief skills, as many would argue that it is personal animus driving his desire to be in the race at all.

The other candidates understood Christie’s role in the proceedings and generally tried to avoid engaging with him where possible – a difficult task when insults are flying fast and free. Christie lambasted entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy with a deeply personal dig, saying: “This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America. So shut up for a little while.” Ramaswamy hit back, saying that Christie’s “version of foreign policy experience was closing a bridge from New Jersey to New York.”

“So do everybody a favor,” Ramaswamy continued, “Just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race.”

The Pugnacious Ramaswamy

Vivek Ramaswamy has everything to gain and very little to lose by being as outrageous as humanly possible. He demonstrated that he is quick on his feet with pithy comebacks and that he is unafraid to “walk toward the fire.”

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(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Whether it was trading verbal barbs with fellow contenders, holding up a handwritten sign stating “Haley = Corrupt,” or triggering the left-leaning media by suggesting that January 6 was an “Inside job,” he demonstrated that he was a man unconstrained – although not necessarily a serious candidate. Almost certainly, he won himself a number of fans, but likely very few committed voters.

In many ways, Ramaswamy came across as the anti-Christie. He refused to go after the former president and instead tried to emulate his pugnacious, combative debate style. He also appeared fine with taking as many blows as the other contenders were willing to offer, in actuality, drawing fire that could have been directed at Trump.

He was also the deliverer of the most brutal moment of the evening, saying:

“One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in Eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for.”

“Look at that,” he continued, referencing Haley’s blank, staring face. “This is what I want everyone to understand. These people – I mean – she has no idea what the names of those provinces are, but she wants to send our sons and daughters and our troops and our military equipment to go fight it.”

Presently, the young entrepreneur polls only slightly ahead of Chris Christie. When the dust settles from this contentious primary, Vivek Ramaswamy will not be the nominee – but he will be an extremely popular, untarnished America First rising star with Trump’s loyal supporters willing to get behind him, and maybe that was his goal all along.

When Did the GOP Debate Cease to Matter?

After the debate, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign said the event was “the biggest waste of time, money, and energy that politics has ever seen.” If the ever-decreasing viewing figures continue their downward trajectory, the spokesperson may be on the right track.

For diehard political observers, these debates are often fun and engaging, as interplays and motivations are revealed in real-time. But for the mass of voters – especially that significant majority who support the former president – they represent little but theater. And if theater is what they are, then they should at least have the propriety of following the three-act rule and offering some ultimate resolution.

When the curtain closes, the viewing audience expects a certain finality. Trump’s absence has denied each of the contenders a potential coup de grâce. As the former president surely knows, sometimes, the best way to win a fight is not to engage at all.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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