As the Republican presidential hopefuls – bar one notable exception – prepare to debate in Milwaukee, WI, this evening (Aug. 23), conventional wisdom suggests that each contender is looking to win Americans’ hearts and minds. And yet a decisive oratorical victory might be somewhat Pyrrhic. With the perpetual ghost in the GOP machine, Donald Trump, looming large as the heavyweight to beat, perhaps the real goals of tonight’s pageantry are a mite more subtle.
Much of the media is describing the event as a vice-presidential job interview, but such surface-level analysis ignores the ambitious personalities of those taking the stage. So who wants what, and what are their chances of achieving it?
The Debate Contenders
Gov. Ron DeSantis
Poll Aggregate*: 13.8% / Betting Odds: 7/1
At the start of his campaign, riding high on a historic gubernatorial victory in Florida, DeSantis seemed determined to get the nomination. Mired by setbacks technical and personal, the promising challenge appears to be devolving into a face-saving exercise for a man who – politically speaking – had it all.
Pivoting from a strategy of Trumpism without Trump to combative challenger has put his campaign into a negative spiral. The grassroots Trump voters who would have supported him for 2028 now cast him as an enemy of the populist movement. Searching for the answer to what derailed his campaign, Liberty Nation’s Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner wrote:
“Some answer this as the work of his own hand, from an embarrassing rollout that made him look like an amateur to his single-minded focus on the highly divisive culture war and his seeming inability to connect with voters at an emotional level. Others see DeSantis’ fall as merely the inevitable byproduct of a groundswell of support for the martyred Trump.”
The Florida governor’s goal for this evening is likely to reposition himself as an ally of Trump who is ready to lead should the former president fall under the sword of multiple indictments.
Poll Aggregate: 8% / Betting Odds: 11/2
The wealthy newcomer has garnered a great deal of positive press from the left and the right. Liberal comedian and television host Bill Maher had kind words for him, as have a number of conservative news outlets. Ramaswamy’s campaign to date has been highly professional and managed that rare feat of walking a razor’s edge on the issue of Trump. A recent upward polling trend suggests that he will soon overtake DeSantis for the number two spot, and by espousing public support for the 45th president, he has positioned himself well for an invite to the Trump 2024 ticket should the former president succeed in winning the nomination.
Ramaswamy’s aim for this debate is most likely to paint himself as a defender of Trump against those who have turned their back on him and to cast himself as a quick-on-his-feet go-getter.
Former Gov. Nikki Haley
Poll Aggregate: 3.3% / Betting Odds: 40/1
As a former South Carolina governor and former US ambassador to the United Nations, Haley will be touting her credentials on stage. She also will be looking to score points against the more populist contenders by attacking their foreign policy positions – an arena in which she believes her brand has clout.
In late July, speaking with CBS News, she made a point of distancing herself from Trump while also not twisting the knife. She said that if the various criminal accusations made against Trump are true, it would be “incredibly dangerous to our national security.” A political response for sure.
Haley is seemingly hoping to make herself the antidote to Trumpism. She has support from many conservatives who approve of the foreign interventionist approach to national security, and her resumé is solid enough to demonstrate her practical political skills. During the debate, she will in all likelihood offer the audience a “stable” return to the GOP of yesteryear.
Former Vice President Mike Pence
Poll Aggregate: 4.5% / Betting Odds: 50/1
The former VP has little chance of winning the final nomination. He is despised on the left for being part of the Trump administration, an emotion eclipsed only by Trump loyalists who believe he hung the former president out to dry. For Mike Pence, this debate doesn’t appear to be about securing the nomination but rather making his case to the American people that he is neither a traitor nor an enabler.
Prior to Jan. 6, 2021, Pence was seen as a cool head who offered the same political platform as Trump minus the fiery personality’s attendant baggage. After a speech at a white-tie dinner in March, in which he said, “President Trump was wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. And his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day, and I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable,” he appears to have burned any goodwill outside of the DC beltway.
While he has virtually no chance of winning the nomination, his involvement is perhaps the most curious. Could Pence be attempting to rehabilitate his reputation among the party faithful?
Sen. Tim Scott
Poll Aggregate: 3% / Betting Odds: 25/1
The South Carolina senator – initially appointed to the upper chamber by Haley – has been running on a campaign of positivity, especially when it comes to Trump. He has called the indictments against the former president “un-American” and openly declared that Trump was not responsible for the events of Jan. 6.
Having been in high office for almost 15 years, the senator has political credentials. It is these and his “morning in America” message redux that he ostensibly hopes will keep him going debate to debate. It seems quite likely that Scott hopes to get the VP nod, thus securing one more notch on his political belt, and earning the loyalty of the Trump populist wing of the party for 2028.
Former Gov. Chris Christie
Poll Aggregate: 3.3% / Betting Odds: 40/1
The former New Jersey governor has one goal in mind – and it is not to win the GOP nomination. Even though Trump has so far refused to join the debate, Christie will be acting as an attack dog against Trumpism. He will most likely try to get his competitors to commit to an element of MAGA and then use that as a wedge – with the help of the legacy media – to declare them not fit for office.
Christie will not be on the eventual nominee’s shortlist for VP, and he is so far removed from the loyal Trump base that his odds of becoming the ultimate Republican nominee are infinitesimal. His goal is to be the not-so-quiet assassin of the GOP’s populist movement.
Gov. Doug Burgum
Poll Aggregate: 0.6% / Betting Odds: Not Available
The entry of Doug Burgum of North Dakota into the GOP debate is a novel affair. While sporting almost zero name recognition, he managed to qualify by legally sending $20 gift cards to those who donated at least $1 to his campaign. And while he has yet to stand out in other ways, this unusual tactic suggests a savvy operator lurks beneath the mild-mannered exterior.
This is likely to be Burgum’s only chance to stand out from the crowd, so we can expect an attempt at a major breakout stance.
Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Poll Aggregate: 1% / Betting Odds: Not Available
Most recently serving as governor of Arkansas, Hutchinson appears to be little more than a Christie-lite taking an opportunity to make some noise. When asked how he would manage the inevitable Trump question, he responded, “I’m not going to defend Donald Trump — I will be a prosecutor. I will be telling the truth on Donald Trump, whether he’s there or not.” Speaking with CNN, he warned that Trump was in “serious jeopardy” of being disqualified from the presidency.
While taking the anti-Trump stance can lead to rewards outside of the GOP (think hosting jobs, K Street, etc.) being the second – and arguably less forceful – voice against the former president appears to result in irrelevance. Hutchinson will apparently be aiming to oust Christie and make himself the leading anti-Trump voice in the party.
The GOP Universe
For now, there is one star in the GOP universe, a force so great that all bodies are forced to orbit around its gravitational pull. The contenders will either have to attack Trump or defend him because the questions – although there will no doubt be some policy meatballs – will ultimately come down to whether they are on Team Trump or not.
As the primary continues, Trump’s grip may well slip, but today, and certainly for this debate, even in his absence, there is no other show in town.
*The aggregate here is the average of the last six major polls before the debate.
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