As five Republican contenders made their pitches to the American people from the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, FL, it became apparent that the candidates had firmly decided the roles they intended to play. The November 8 GOP debate hosted by NBC was a strange combination of recrimination, grand schemes, and attack tactics designed to differentiate themselves from the pack. With another higher threshold debate scheduled for December 6, for at least two hopefuls, this may be their last bite of the publicity apple.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) were all in attendance. The one man with an almost unassailable primary lead was not. Donald Trump was a mere 11 miles away, holding a rally event that sought – somewhat successfully – to draw the focus away from what is frequently referred to as a “VP beauty pageant.”
DeSantis Versus Haley
Both Haley and DeSantis attempted to navigate the tricky waterways of proclaiming themselves the heir to Trumpism while simultaneously denigrating Trump and trying to keep his loyal support base on their side.
During his opening statement, the Florida rising star said, “Donald Trump is a lot different guy than he was in 2016.” “He said Republicans were gonna get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night — I’m sick of Republicans losing,” he said, referring to the significant losses of the off-year elections held on Nov. 7. For her part, Haley accused Trump of being “weak at the knees” over his more recent calmer position on Ukraine. Neither tactic was likely to endear them to the all-important Trump-favoring base necessary to win a general election, let alone the primary.
DeSantis made a subtle course correction from blaming the 45th president for recent losses to saying that the Republican Party lacks coordination in dealing with single-issue election difficulties. “You’ve got to do a better job on these referenda,” he said, referring to the big nationwide wins for the pro-choice side, adding that “a lot of the people who are voting for the referenda are Republicans who would vote for a Republican candidate. So you’ve got to understand how to do that.”
Haley was combative and sharp on foreign policy issues, which dominated the first 40 minutes of the two-hour debate. She demonstrated her knowledge and understanding of geo-political and military issues while scoring points against her opponents for not having the facts at hand. Although a number of media outlets (on both the left and right) declared her the night’s winner, her talk of military escalation with Iran, China, Russia, and, well … just about any other country mentioned, may appeal to pundits and politicos who only see the world in black and white, but appears quite the distance removed from the core Trump base who seem to prefer a less interventionist approach abroad.
The former ambassador had a few notable dustups with Vivek Ramaswamy, at one point calling him “scum” for highlighting that her own daughter uses TikTok after criticizing him for doing the same. While a number of right-leaning outlets like the New York Post declared her the debate winner, highlighting her zingers against the young entrepreneur, the language she used might not necessarily play well with the audience she is hoping to woo. She said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were “salivating” at the prospect of someone like Ramaswamy in the Oval Office. Yes, it is a brutal attack, but it is also reminiscent of Democrat attacks on Donald Trump in 2016, who said almost exactly the same thing. A comparison that will not go unnoticed by those who have supported Trump from the beginning.
Ultimately, it seemed that Haley and DeSantis blunted each other to the point of indistinguishability. Despite their occasional rancorous exchanges (not just in this most recent debate), it would not be hard to imagine them both on the same presidential ticket – although whose name came first on the ballot would almost certainly create fireworks.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that Vivek Ramaswamy is pitching himself as the only viable contender for Trump’s vice president. Not because he has the political experience necessary to build the role into something substantial (he doesn’t), and not because he has the ability to build bridges with political opponents to further legislative agendas (again, he doesn’t). What he does have is the right attitude to appeal to Trump voters. He has not knocked Donald Trump in any significant way and continues to push “Trumpian” policy. Most importantly for that particular voting group, he has a fearlessness in going after others – something that Trump utilized to great success in 2016.
With his opening statements, he torched Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel for choosing NBC to host the debate and asked her to come to the stage and submit her resignation:
“Do you think the Democrats would actually hire Greg Gutfeld to host a Democratic Debate? They wouldn’t do it – Kristen [Welker, one of the moderators] I’m going to use this time to ask you if the Trump collusion hoax that you pushed on this network for years, was that real or was that Hillary Clinton, made up disinformation? Answer the question – Go!”
He made the case that a GOP debate should be hosted by people like Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk, or Joe Rogan, saying the audience would be much larger – and he may have a point. In August 2015, almost 24 million people tuned in to watch the GOP primary debate. Consider this year’s figures where less than ten million tuned in to the second debate – and while the numbers are not yet out for last night’s show, that figure will almost certainly fall. Donald Trump, during his competing event, made a similar point, saying, “They’re not watchable. You know, the last debate was the lowest-rated debate in the history of politics, so therefore, do you think we did the right thing by not participating?”
Scott’s Big Debate Surprise
As Liberty Nation’s Editor-in-Chief noted in the “pregame coverage,” Senator Tim Scott unfortunately “gives off a lingering feeling of ‘nice guys finish last.’” Although he did little to dispel this negative image, in terms of mature deliberation, he actually stood out positively from his Republican colleagues.
In response to most of the domestic policy issues, Scott referenced his already published plans and enumerated the steps he would take. Bolstering his “nice guy” image (not always a good move in dangerous waters), he refused to engage in the bickering that took place downstage and made honest attempts to actually answer the questions asked. Most notably, he provided NBC host Lester Holt with a lesson on economics that should have had the moderator flushing with embarrassment.
Holt asked what Scott would do to bring down gas prices. Scott responded with a number of steps, from allowing developers to use the leases to reopening the XL pipeline. Holt then pushed back at this answer – making the senator the only candidate who was apparently debating a host as well as the other contenders – saying that this did not do anything to bring down prices in the short term. Scott immediately responded:
“Well, actually it does, to be honest with you. The way the economy works is on the ability to anticipate excess supply versus the demand. When that happens, confidence drives our prices down because we know there’s going to be a greater surplus.”
Will the Real Chris Christie Please Stand Up
The one man in the debate not trying to secure a position – but rather deny Trump the nomination – was almost invisible on the stage. None of the contenders sought to engage the former New Jersey governor, and neither were his policy positions even acknowledged by the other attendees. In fact, it was as if they all suddenly realized that arguing with someone whose only role is character assassination was a fool’s errand.
Oddly enough, Christie was not as vehement in his messaging against Trump as he was during the first two debates. Could it be that he actually harbors secret hopes of winning the nomination and is starting to think that he might have a shot? That would explain his pulling back on the vehemence in favor of policy prescription. He even managed a laugh line that did not come across as scripted and cringy, calling out billionaire investor Warren Buffet. “I don’t know if Warren Buffett is collecting Social Security. But if he is, shame on you, you shouldn’t be taking the money,” Christie said.
No spicy nicknames, no major attacks on the former president (other than that he would be tied up with legal matters if he won the election), all suggest that someone has whispered to Christie that – despite everything – there’s a chance that he could be sitting in the Oval Office in a little over a year.
Trump and the Media Plays Their Own Roles
A notable Washington, DC, news outlet claimed that Donald Trump was making “a mockery” of the primary process by appearing at a competing rally and not being on stage. One might wonder where such recriminations are for President Joe Biden, who is also skipping the primary process with his own party. But hypocrisy aside, the denizens of the Fourth Estate are gradually coming around to the idea that this next general election will be a rematch between Trump and Biden.
Coverage of the GOP primary debate is now being presented as what it really is – the Trump alternative contest. Should Trump be forced to drop out, should he be disqualified from running, the debate provides a handy replacement. More realistically, it is accepted as a pageant to determine who the American public would prefer as Trump’s top pick for VP.
Of interest is that at one point in the debate, a significant portion of the crowd began chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump,” much to the chagrin of an NBC producer who gently scolded the audience and said that the hopefuls had “worked really hard for us tonight.” Don Jr. reacted to this, posting:
“RNC ‘debate’ audience chanting TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP tells you everything you need to know folks. It’s over folks but the swamp grifters and consultants are going to milk their billionaire funded Super PACs to the last cent. Because the swamp cares about money and power not America.”
The former president has an unassailable lead over his closest competitor of more than 40 points. In terms of winning the big show in 2024, CNN released a poll that put Trump four points ahead of Biden – a factor they noted was “outside the margin of error.” The New York Times also released polling that shows Trump dominates Joe Biden in five essential swing states.
As ratings continue to plunge and Trump continues to rise, the debate stage appears less an arena for the cut and thrust of ideas, and more a proving ground for life after the fateful 2024 election. The candidate who can grasp that idea and run with it is the real winner of the debate.