Sunday, December 03, 2023

GOP Eight Take Debate Stage in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the candidate in second place, and perhaps the challenger who former President Donald Trump fears most, was not the top target of the evening. Instead, in what seemed a rare moment of unintended unity, Vivek Ramaswamy was.

Former Vice President Mike Pence questioned the maturity of the 38-year-old first-time candidate. Nikki Haley, a two-term governor of South Carolina and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the tech entrepreneur was naïve about foreign policy. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even compared the fast-talking upstart to Barack Obama – and not favorably.

Otherwise, absent the front-runner, the field sparred spiritedly amongst themselves, shouting at the audience and talking over each other while exchanging insults and ignoring the moderators. After two hours, they pulled off a collective achievement: disproving Trump’s taunt that they were only on stage in Wisconsin to audition to be his running mate. They were there intending to winnow the field, and the established candidates clearly wanted to start with Ramaswamy.

“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” Christie said introducing what would become a theme of the night when he compared Ramaswamy first to AI software and then to Obama: “I am afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie added,

When Ramaswamy and Pence clashed over the accomplishments of the previous administration, the former VP shot back, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie.” And when Ramaswamy pledged to stop military aide to Ukraine, Haley accused him of siding with the Russians over an ally. “You have no foreign policy experience,” she said. “And it shows.”

As the candidates clashed like this throughout the night here, jostling over everything from abortion to Ukraine, Ramaswamy, who sits in third place in the RealClearPolitics Average, leapt into almost every contentious scrum. DeSantis, the candidate the field must topple to take on Trump one-on-one, sometimes seemed an afterthought. He made the most of his free hand.

“Republicans, we’ve got to look forward, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re bringing the message that can win,” DeSantis replied when Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum asked the participants whether they would support Trump as a nominee if he was convicted of any of the felonies he is charged with in four separate indictments. Ramaswamy’s hand shot up first, followed by most of the others in various degrees of enthusiasm. Later, when queried about whether they thought Mike Pence did his constitutional duty on Jan. 6, 2021, by affirming the Electoral College vote, DeSantis offered only tepid support.

“Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him,” the governor said of Pence’s decision to buck Trump and certify the previous election. “It’s not about Jan. 6, 2021,” he added. “It’s about Jan. 20, 2025, when the president is going to take office.”

This was an opinion shared by all but two of the debaters. Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson both insisted that Trump must be held accountable for his conduct. But while DeSantis sidestepped Trump’s indictment, he did not spare Trump from criticism for current national challenges.

“Why are we in this mess? Part of it and a major reason is because of how this federal government handled COVID-19 by locking down this economy,” DeSantis said early in the night.

“It was a mistake,” he continued. “It should have never happened, and in Florida, we led the country out of lockdown. We kept our state free and open. And I can tell you this, as your president, I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down.”

“You don’t take somebody like [Dr. Anthony] Fauci and coddle him. You bring Fauci and you sit him down, and you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired,’” DeSantis concluded, bringing a haymaker against an absent opponent home.

The governor was zeroing in on what some on the right once saw as the soft underbelly of the populist president, and while Trump had mocked the debate as little more than tryouts for finding his potential running mate, he takes seriously that critique. He still sent his surrogates to Milwaukee in force.

Their mission: Cut down the Republican occupying the No. 2 spot in the RealClearPolitics Average.

In pursuit of that task Donald Trump Jr. stood in for his father. Without a candidate present at the debate, even if it was the front-runner, he was not permitted into “the spin room.” Though irritated that security wouldn’t allow him to pass, the former president’s eldest son was swarmed by a gaggling horde of reporters with outstretched cell phones and recorders.

He took immediate aim at two targets, Ron DeSantis and Fox News, trashing both for more than 10 minutes for not allowing him on air and for challenging his father. He said Florida’s governor “flipped-flopped” on Ukraine, answered questions “robotically” on stage, and stole Donald Trump’s talking points and policies.

“Anything DeSantis said that got applause tonight was literally Trump’s policies,” Donald Jr. said before declaring, “The DeSantis campaign is over.” Accompanied by fiancée Kimberly Guilfoyle, who added her own commentary (“Bottom line, Trump is going to be the nominee”), Don Jr. criticized the entire GOP field for failing to stand up for Trump and concentrating their fire on each other. “How many times,” he asked, “did they talk about how they are going to beat the Democrats?”

But who did he believe did the best in the debate? Trump Jr. replied in one word: “Vivek.”

Less than an hour earlier, the entrepreneur had shared the love. “Let’s just speak the truth,” Ramaswamy said at one point, “President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact.”

Though his admiration of Trump is well known, few expected Ramaswamy would steal the spotlight. Before the debate kicked off, Texas Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene printed a “Ron DeSanctimonious Debate Night Bingo Card” with spaces for “Ron Backs Down,” and “Ron Plagiarizes Trump,” and “Ron Defends Slavery.”

Not many boxes were crossed off by the end of the night, as the Florida governor competed for oxygen. James Uthmeier, the new DeSantis campaign manager, had an easy answer for why his boss wasn’t attacked more. “People didn’t want to give him more airtime,” he shrugged. What about Ramaswamy, the night’s surprising target of opportunity? “The American people probably wished he got less airtime.”

Ramaswamy went into the night picking a fight, not so much with one candidate, but with Republicans past and present, including his seven debating partners. “I’m the only person on this stage,” he declared, “who isn’t bought and paid for.”

Stefan Mychajliw, deputy communications director for Ramaswamy, told reporters he was pleased with the blanket condemnation. “It was a brutal bloodbath for the establishment politicians on the stage tonight,” he said. There wasn’t any need for spin, he added. “Vivek won it hands down.”

A strange paradox may have helped: The more a contender was attacked, the more airtime they received. According to the rules, when a candidate was criticized by name, they earned an opportunity for a 30-second rebuttal. The ire of their competitors earned them more oxygen. This was a boon to the brawlers and an obstacle to anyone who wanted to stay above the fray.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott told Sean Hannity that he felt good about his moments throughout the night. He still had hoped for more, namely, he told the Fox News host, “an adult conversation.”

“We didn’t spend enough time talking about the challenges we have at our southern border. We didn’t talk long enough about the challenges that we have with China. It’s not the strength of China, it’s the weakness of Biden, that’s the problem that we face as a nation,” Scott said. Those are what the next debate should be about, not “a food fight on the stage.”

The elder statesman of the race seemed comfortable in that rapid fire environment. Mike Pence repeatedly took the opportunity to go on offense, so much so that the moderators at times had to rebuke the most senior Republican on stage. But he drew a notable contrast with Haley when the diplomat bluntly said a federal abortion ban was an impossibility.

“When you’re talking about a federal ban, be honest with the American people,” Haley said, arguing that the arithmetic in the Senate meant the debate was necessarily moot because no Democratic or Republican president has the votes to set abortion policy. She said the nation should strive for consensus. Without it though, she warned, “don’t make women feel they have to decide on this issue.”

“To be honest with you, Nikki, you’re my friend, but consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Pence replied, after his fellow Trump admin alum made the case for bipartisan agreement on the contentious issue. The federal government has a role to play, Pence insisted, and Republicans ought to be the ones to put restrictions in place. “It’s not a states-only issue,” he said. “It’s a moral issue.”

The second debate will come next month at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., where much of the same field, including candidates who have struggled to gain any kind of significant momentum, will assemble. The debate stage gave candidates far behind in the polls their first real shot to make an appeal in front of a prime-time audience.

Even North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, fresh off a torn Achilles tendon injury earlier in the day and arriving to Fiserv Forum on crutches, managed nearly eight minutes of speaking time, giving most Americans their first look at a candidate running low in the single digits in recent polls.

Christie made the most of his chance, closing the night with a final statement that was equal parts nostalgic and pragmatic. “I did it in a deep blue state,” he said of his upset win in New Jersey against a Democratic governor.

“Beating a Democratic incumbent is not easy,” Christie said pivoting to the presidency before invoking the Gipper. “The last Democratic incumbent who was defeated was Jimmy Carter and he was defeated by a conservative governor from a blue state who knew how to get results, stood for the truth, who cared about accountability and stood strong and hard against waste.”

Ramaswamy leaned on a different kind of reference to the Reagan Era at the end of the night, recalling how he was born in 1985 as a member of “a generation where we were taught to celebrate our diversity, and our differences so much that we forgot all of the ways that we are really just the same as Americans.” But only a return to constitutional ideals, the ones that “won us the American Revolution,” he said, could unite the country and in turn “win us the revolution of 2024.”

The final word went to DeSantis, who managed to fuse Reaganesque and Trumpian imagery into a single sentence while simultaneously taking a shot at the man all eight Republicans here want to replace. “This is our time for choosing,” said Florida’s governor, “we will send Joe Biden back to his basement and we will reverse the decline of this country.”

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