The “must win” scenario. It’s employed all the time in the sports world.
As fans, how many times have we heard the term “must win” to describe our favorite team’s dwindling chances of making the playoffs, as though life or death depended on the outcome of a single contest? I’ve found it especially curious in baseball, considering there are 162 regular games and they’re all equally weighted for playoff consideration. Wouldn’t every game be deemed a “must win” situation, or is it only the contests near the end of a season?
Strangely enough, many observers are approaching tonight’s first 2024 Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a “must win” type occasion for some of the candidates. This adds a fair amount of pressure to an already high-stakes event, basically suggesting that if the individual candidates don’t show up and work for a “moment” that they will have failed and their entire campaign deflated from this evening onward.
There’s little doubt that a few of the GOPers competing in Milwaukee will experience an added degree of expectation, but is it really do or die time for any of them? After all, it’s only late August, there will be more debates, and the first votes won’t be cast until early next year.
In an article titled “DeSantis allies see debate as critical moment for struggling campaign”, Julia Manchester reported at The Hill last week:
“[DeSantis’s] supporters maintain it’s still too early in the cycle to be writing his political obituary, but note that the first debate will be a significant test for DeSantis. ‘If you’ve got to do a campaign shakeup, this is the time to do it,’ said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor. ‘The debate is really opening day for the presidential primary, in my opinion.’…
“’I think Gov. DeSantis is wise to make changes, especially when relatively few people are looking, so that he goes into the fall with the campaign team he wants and has it tuned so they can focus on the task ahead,’ [Eberhart] said.
“DeSantis’s campaign is maintaining that they’re on the upswing as he continues to pursue an all-in-on-Iowa strategy. The governor’s allies say there is an opening for him to break through in Iowa, pointing to a New York Times/Siena College poll showing Trump leading DeSantis 44 percent to 20 percent among likely caucusgoers. That lead is narrower than Trump’s 54 percent to 17 percent lead over DeSantis in the national New York Times/Siena College poll.”
The DeSantis folks certainly hope the NYT/Sienna poll is accurate and that it indicates there’s an “opening” for the candidate to break through. Time is just about the only thing that’s on DeSantis’s side these days, and it must be somewhat comforting to recall that elections are never won in August. But they could be lost in late summer if the Floridian lays a proverbial rotten egg in Milwaukee.
Unlike some of the worried folks who think tonight is a “must win” scenario for DeSantis, I don’t believe it’s so – unless DeSantis commits a major blunder along the lines of forgetting his wife’s name or how many children he has, or a brain freeze where he can’t name all of the federal departments that he plans to eliminate if he’s elected, a la Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012. (As a side note, Perry was on pain medication for a chronic back condition at the time and it could’ve impacted his short-term memory.)
Only Democrats are forgiven for such inexcusable blips. If you don’t believe it, relive all the gaffes bumbling Joe Biden committed in the Democrat 2020 debates. Biden was so brain-dulled that he made Bernie Sanders seem like a spring chicken by comparison.
Therefore, DeSantis’s prime task is to articulate the causes that have been most important to him and would be most salient if he’s president starting in 2025. He’ll be positioned at or near the center of the stage, since next to Trump, he’s the only Republican who consistently polls in double-digits. The coy horserace frontrunner announced that he won’t be there (instead he’s going for an internet chat with Tucker Carlson), but DeSantis’s strategy wouldn’t greatly change either way.
It will likely help Ron that the other candidates will be pecking at DeSantis at least (or maybe even more) as much as they’d be taking shots at Trump. The former president and undisputed primary leader likely won’t be the target of incessant barbs against him, the non-Trump candidates realizing that Trump is riding the crest of a wave brought on by the Biden administration’s (and New York’s and Atlanta’s) prosecutions of him stemming from three or more years ago.
Chris Christie and newly qualified Asa Hutchinson are the exceptions. They’re discussed below.
DeSantis has the luxury of largely side-stepping the questions regarding Trump’s legal problems and should take every opportunity to try and steer the conversation back towards the real issues in the campaign – the economic and cultural health of the nation – while also getting in some jabs at Joe Biden and his crooked crime family operation. It’s not the right occasion to try a “hail Mary” pass or to pull the goalie (yes, a hockey term, meaning a team that’s behind at the end of the game might pull its own goaltender in favor of adding another attacker in a last-ditch effort to tie the score and force overtime).
I, for one, don’t believe this is a “must win” for DeSantis. It’s a must-survive scenario, since the other candidates need to try and establish themselves as the primary not-Trump candidate instead of DeSantis. In so doing, chances are they’ll hang themselves if provided enough rope, since all DeSantis needs to accomplish is to look presidential and talk about electability and the absence of any scandals in his hemisphere.
The same cannot be argued for former Trump vice president Mike Pence, who definitely must feel more gravity to set himself apart tonight – not only from the other not-Trump candidates, but also from his political boss of four years. And Pence must keep in mind that he’s speaking to two different kinds of Republican voters, those who support Trump and those that don’t.
The former group being the larger and more important one.
Pence has answered the January 6 queries about a million times, but it’s probable that he’ll get another chance to make it a million and one in Milwaukee. At the same time, no one will listen to Mike’s response because they’ve heard it so many times, and one wishes the Fox News hosts would save precious seconds by asking Pence something else. Or, when the question comes, Pence will simply utter something about the “constitution”, “duty” and “elections are about the future” and move on to a different subject.
Pence needs something to make him standout besides what many consider an intense negative that’s attached itself to him through history and circumstance. Mike won’t be able to do it through personality and witty one-liners, unless he seeks to completely change his persona. It won’t be easy, and the second debate, which he’ll need to qualify for, is only a month away (on September 27 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California).
Needless to say, the “must win” quality of the program will motivate the less-popular candidates – Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (again, who?) -- to swing a little harder for the fences. By all appearances, Haley still doesn’t have a real issue platform to stand behind other than Trump and Biden are too old – and that she’s this year’s Republican woman candidate who is vying to recapture the old GOP establishment mushy moderate suburban vote.
If Haley somehow ends up with the nomination, would the disaffected Trump supporters turn out for a “standard” Republican? No way. Haley will do everything she can to shout “I’m here, I’m female and I’d make a great V.P.!” without plastering the words to her forehead.
Tim Scott will position himself as the “consensus” candidate and hold up his life story as a blueprint for how to achieve the American dream. Burgum will tout the energy production success of his home state and hope to gain his moment by compelling the Fox hosts to stop asking everyone about Trump so they can talk about something else, like Vladmir Putin and China’s threat to Taiwan.
Here's guessing that many, many people will concentrate on Vivek Ramaswamy. As this year’s refreshing brand new outsider, the Ohioan should get his share of attention – one because he’s somewhat of a novelty (a young entrepreneur with echoes of a GOP version of Andrew Yang) and two, because Ramaswamy offers a convincing attack on the evils of the DC swamp and a new way of seeing things.
One trick pony (Clydesdale?) Chris Christie doesn’t see the debate as a “must win” simply because there’s absolutely nothing he could say that would win anything in terms of competitiveness to vie for the Republican nomination. Christie lives to appear at debates and will devote all his energy to qualifying for the next one, which shouldn’t be difficult given his strong polling in New Hampshire.
Probably the only candidate with absolutely no “must win” urgency is polling frontrunner Donald Trump, who is probably near or at the top of his voter support in the primary race. Trump wins by showing up – or not showing up – and pundits will go back and forth for a few weeks debating whether the event benefited or hurt Trump in the long run.
Trump’s “ratings” for his interview appearance (on X, formerly known as Twitter) with Tucker Carlson should be enormous and could even rival Fox News’s numbers, which no doubt was a goal of both Trump and Carlson.
One way or another, conservative viewers of Wednesday night’s debate will most likely be treated to a pretty good show. It usually takes two or three forums for candidates to really reach a comfort zone with directly confronting each other over perceived strengths and weaknesses. The establishment media will home in on the personal attacks, but what will the voters care about?
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