Saturday, December 09, 2023

GOP Debate No. 1: The Curtain Rises

According to polling, a majority of Americans consistently say they won’t vote for Donald Trump, and yet the former president remains the undisputed frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination.

He will not be in Milwaukee to defend that position at the first GOP primary debate. Instead, Trump has pre-recorded an interview with Tucker Carlson, previously of Fox News. His absence on stage, at least in theory, provides the rest of the field with a chance to make their case.

Eight candidates have punched their tickets according to the rules set by the RNC. Here are some of the opportunities, and liabilities, for the remainder of the field.

Gov. Ron DeSantis: The Unindicted Florida Man

He was billed as the competent Florida man, the conservative juggernaut practically designed to defeat Biden and deliver on promises to remake America. Then his campaign started. Glitches, gaffes, and muddled messages followed and he fell back into a distant second place.

As the most viable Trump alternative on stage and the No. 2 Republican in the race, the governor will be the No. 1 target of opportunity. Rivals are sharpening their knives, and DeSantis must blunt their attacks while finally living up to all the hype that his allies invited before he entered the race.

“He needs to prove he is a better candidate than his campaign,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, told RealClearPolitics. Opinion research shows plenty of GOP voters have Trump fatigue and want someone different. Conant said DeSantis “needs to convince them he is their guy.”

If a reset can still happen, Milwaukee might be the last best place to start. Voters know his name and have heard plenty of his soundbites. “But believe it or not,” Timothy Head, executive director of the influential Faith & Freedom Coalition, told RCP, “not that many people have heard directly from him or even watched him live on television.”

DeSantis loves to be a brawler. A Harvard-educated lawyer, the governor has enlisted “debate wizard” Brett O’Donnell to whip him into fighting shape. As he works to differentiate himself from Trump, his campaign has told donors to expect him to prove he is a contender for next November by focusing his attention on Biden. Oh, and on top of all that, the no-nonsense DeSantis must also prove he is human.

“He has a lot to gain, or potentially lose,” Head said, “if he can come across as personable.”

Vivek Ramaswamy: The Surging Enigma

Polished candidates don’t generally question whether federal agents were onboard the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, but Vivek Ramaswamy did. He is currently polling third in the RealClearPolitics Average.

Operatives dismissed the biotech entrepreneur with no experience in government. But the Trump-friendly, anti-woke reformer has surged past competitors with more austere credentials. He has done it by talking to everyone, including Don Lemon, formerly of CNN, and by talking about everything – no matter how controversial – including whether the federal government hid the truth about 9/11.

He is fast-talking and unapologetically optimistic about the future of the country, so long as the nation embraces his prescription for a second revolution, what he calls “our 1776 moment.” Everyone is paying attention now, including DeSantis, whose allies are urging him to take the fight to Ramaswamy. The fear? Ramaswamy could easily steal the spotlight.

His campaign argues the primary is already a two-man race between him and the other Florida man. In a leaked memo obtained by RCP, they told their donors Ramaswamy is set to “eclipse DeSantis.” He has a chance to prove it in Milwaukee.

“Campaigns like his, which come out of nowhere and get early momentum, tend to flame out,” Conant said, pointing to stars that burned bright right before crashing, like Herman Cain. A big part of avoiding that fate could be demonstrating policy expertise, particularly in foreign affairs.

“Are you going to give this guy who no one ever heard of until recently the keys to our nuclear arsenal?” Conant said of the candidate who recently floated the idea of defending Taiwan only until the U.S. can develop its own “semi-conductor independence.”

Ramaswamy isn’t cramming for the debate. Why deviate from what worked already? The candidate’s goal is to come across as “authentic” and “unproduced.” If that doesn’t work, his campaign told RCP, “There is always a second debate and we can take a new approach, you know, maybe a little bit more coached.”

Former VP Mike Pence: Mr. Constitution Searching for a Constituency

Most of the candidates on their way to Milwaukee have spent weeks workshopping their answers about Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen and his subsequent legal jeopardy. Not Mike Pence.

The former vice president already codified his divorce from the former president in interviews, speeches, and even a book. The short version: Trump asked him to violate the law by overturning the election; he chose to uphold his oath to the Constitution instead.

His reward? Middling poll numbers for most of the early primary season. The compounding Trump indictments may have breathed fresh life into Pence, who sits in fourth place in the RealClearPolitics Average. He met the RNC polling and fundraising qualifications for the first and second debates around the time that he started sharpening his criticism of his old boss.

“DeSantis is flopping. Trump is getting indicted. People are taking a closer look at Mike,” Bobby Saparow, executive director of the pro-Pence super PAC, Committed to America, told RCP. “He is right in the mix. It’s a way to get earned media attention, but he is resonating and climbing because people are looking for an alternative.”

If others struggle to navigate “the minefield” that is the 2020 election, Pence can address the controversy like he has hundreds of times already and then pivot to his old-school conservatism. But it isn’t clear if that orthodoxy still sells, or if an elder statesman, even one as well respected as Pence, can force his way to the front of a populist field.

Even the evangelicals who adore Pence have started to see politics as less “of an exercise in statesmanship,” said Head. “They actually see it as more of a brass-knuckle street fight.”

Former Ambassador Nikki Haley: The Experienced, But Overlooked, Diplomat

Haley wore the argument on her sleeve at the Iowa State Fair. The message printed on her shirt read, “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.” It was a blunt and brash assessment of the race from the diplomat who polls in the low single digits.

First in the race, Haley has gone the longest without catching fire. As a former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations, she has the kind of qualifications traditionally associated with the presidency. She still sits in fifth place in the RealClearPolitics Average.

She has attacked Trump for his skepticism of the war in Ukraine, DeSantis for his metaphorical war with Disney, and Ramaswamy over his plan to cut aid to Israel. It hasn’t worked.

But Haley has a unique advantage as the only woman on stage at a moment when her party desperately needs to win back that constituency, and she has succeeded where her competitors struggled. For instance, Haley was the rare candidate to handle populist firebrand Tucker Carlson with ease. And if her competition looks past her, they may open themselves up to a broadside.

“She is someone who could easily be declared the winner of the debate if she delivers some punches and doesn’t take any,” Conant said.

Former Gov. Chris Christie: The Bouncing Brawler

Christie did not win a single primary the last time he ran for president. All the same, he is credited for running former Sen. Marco Rubio off the debate stage.

The question is who he will maul first in Milwaukee. “I think Chris Christie is going to be the guy to watch. He’s the most skilled debater,” former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told CNN on Sunday. “He’s coming after Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy, and it’s going to be entertaining.”

The governor has shown tremendous ideological flexibility, backing and then turning on Trump, though rivals may have a hard time pinning him down. And while Christie makes good television, he doesn’t yet have a following. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats have a negative opinion of the brawler once he is off stage.

“He’s essentially running for governor of New Hampshire,” Conant said of the Christie go-for-broke strategy to win that state and springboard himself to further relevance.

Sen. Tim Scott: An Optimist Crying Out in a Partisan Desert

The South Carolina Republican stands out as an optimist unwilling to get into the partisan mud. As a black conservative, Scott pitches himself as a candidate who can simultaneously unite the right and whose “life disproves the lies of the radical left.”

Though well-funded and well-respected by his colleagues, his approach hasn’t yet helped his standing. Scott polls around 3%. The debate offers a primetime opportunity – and test. As most of the other candidates try to tap into partisan anger, the cheerful conservative warrior plans to share his own story.

“We’re going to focus on restoring hope, creating opportunities, and protecting the America that we all love,” he told Fox News.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson: The Overlooked Trump Critic

A former prosecutor, Hutchinson has been a vocal critic of Trump, and during the pandemic, the Republican governor was also an unlikely partner of the Biden administration. He has not, however, gained the admiration of the primary electorate.

It wasn’t clear that he would even meet the RNC debate qualifications to make the stage. To accumulate the required 40,000 donors, the Hutchinson campaign reportedly launched a text-for-play scheme whereby small-dollar campaign bundlers were paid $20 for every single unique donor they signed up by phone. Milwaukee may be his last chance to prosecute his case against Trump.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum: The Little-Known, Last-Minute Candidate

The entrepreneur-turned-politician rolled out an innovative gimmick similar to Hutchinson to garner the donors needed: He would send a $20 gift card to anyone who donated even $1 to his campaign. It worked. Now Burgum must prove that his candidacy isn’t also a gimmick.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.