It’s been a month and four days – or five weeks, whichever way you prefer to remember it – since the Republican presidential primary field, minus way-out-in-front-frontrunner Donald Trump, met in Milwaukee to field live questions from a pair of Fox News personalities on the
hot topics of the day in the first GOP primary debate ahead of the all-important 2024 party caucuses and primaries.
As would be expected, the lead-up to the event was pure hype and the program itself was entertaining to watch for its curious dynamic and back-and-forth between the non-Trump competitors. At the time, I couldn’t help but surmise that nothing much, in terms of real movement in the race, would result from watching the establishment candidates assault newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy for his defense of Trump as well as the Ohioan’s “outsider” positions on Ukraine and a host of other issues.
I was right. There’s been very little tangible movement in the polls since that evening. Donald Trump (who ran counterprogramming to the “official” debate by showing his sit-down with Tucker Carlson on the conservative talker’s X platform) has not only maintained his ginormous margin, he’s expanded it, a fact that confounds both establishment media liberals and Never Trumpers (one and the same?) alike.
The talkers seem to like updates on Trump’s legal troubles while predicting more to come, but now that his enemies appear to have run out of fresh charges, the snail-like pace of the courtroom proceedings has staunched the flow of actionable news flashes. The ongoing saga of senile president Joe Biden’s scumbag son Hunter’s entanglements is only just beginning by contrast.
Then there’s the Republican-led House of Representatives’ recent move to initiate an impeachment inquiry into the ethically challenged president, a topic that is certain to come up in tonight’s debate (at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, hosted by the Fox Business Network and Univision (Spanish language) at 9 p.m. EDT). Here’s betting the question will go something like this: “By show of hands, would you support the House passing impeachment articles of the president? If so, why?”
That won’t be the only softball question tonight’s contenders will face. There will certainly be lots to argue over, but the absence of Trump will limit some of the subject matter, since, as always, the race is really all about Trump and who’s willing to defend or criticize him. We’re still four months out from the Iowa Caucuses, but the sense of urgency for Trump’s fellow candidates is getting stronger.
As for Trump? Is he taking the race for granted? Some political old hats think so. From the establishment’s wishful thinking file comes this piece titled “Iowa Could Open Up the 2024 GOP Primary”, George W. Bush’s 72-year-old “brain”, Karl Rove, wrote at the Wall Street Journal recently:
“Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to like retail campaigning. He breezed in and out of the state fair Aug. 12 while other contenders spent hours and hours there. He prefers rallies of frenzied fans. Doors open two hours early and people are told to show up 90 minutes before he speaks. Taking no questions, his speeches are part ramble, part rant. It’s entertaining—or at least once was—but is it effective?
“Mr. Trump’s competitors, unburdened by multiple criminal indictments, are making up in their volume of appearances in early states what Mr. Trump gets with his infrequent rallies. Last Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had six events in Iowa while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had eight stops there across Friday and Saturday...
“Today, the former president has a big lead in national GOP primary polls. But beware: Republican primary voters don’t like being taken for granted. Right now, that’s what Mr. Trump and his team are doing. Voters know how to register their unhappiness.”
Rove should know about unhappiness, for ever since Trump came onto the political scene eight years ago the longtime establishmentarian consultant and TV personality has had to employ his famous “white board” showing ruling class candidates losing to conservatives. Voters just don’t seem to have a taste for the bluebloods any longer, as some of the most disgraced current politicians and former officeholders are from the old Bush/Rove school of go-along-to-get-along losers.
Trump has defied convention by doing things his way. As I recall, the lifelong real estate developer and reality TV star didn’t do a heck of a lot of retail political gladhanding in 2016, either, but he still won. Ted Cruz won Iowa that year but Trump figured he had a solid firewall in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and didn’t really look back after that, though Cruz forced him to work for the nomination.
This year, the anti-establishment conservative candidates are once again polling strongly, with Trump in the lead by a huge gap and his closest competition – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and heretofore unknown entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy -- attracting voters to their limited government message.
The Washington ruling class’s favorites – those being former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Trump Vice President Mike Pence, former (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott -- trail behind, all in single digits. Haley in particular enjoyed a brief “debate bump” from the Milwaukee tussle, but she’s back down to around 5 percent in the Real Clear Politics Average.
As Rove previewed in his piece, the not-Trump candidates have been busy canvassing in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina while Trump has mostly confined himself to brief appearances in those states (like in South Carolina the other day) or simply doing interviews, like the one he did a week and a half ago with new “Meet the Press” host Kristin Welker, which mostly drew comment for Trump’s answer on abortion.
The most remarkable thing about the Republican horserace thus far appears to be how the proverbial starting gate only opened for Trump and the rest of the “horses” are stuck waiting for something to happen. It’s not Ron DeSantis’s fault, or Nikki Haley’s, that the establishment news media would rather devote time to Trump’s legal hindrances than their small-scale appeals to local audiences on the same topics they’ve been talking about for months now.
Nevertheless, there shouldn’t be any absence of drama on stage tonight. With one fewer candidate than last time (seven have qualified, everyone who was at the first go-round except former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson), there should be (somewhat) less of the candidates running into each other, verbally, of course, to secure time to speak and hopefully say something catchy so that media outlets will replay their quotes.
Without Trump there to supply obvious star power, it’s hard to say how viewership will be for the normally vital program. Trump’s mass of supporters, many of which have already made up their minds, probably won’t feel compelled to watch unless they’re bored with the Wednesday night TV lineup and think there’s nothing else that’s more compelling.
The much smaller group of Republican voters still open to choosing a candidate, which presumably also includes Trump, will certainly be curious to see if any of tonight’s participants can separate him or herself from the others. The stakes are considerably higher than they were five weeks ago for practically all of them. As this year’s Ted Cruz (from 2016), Gov. DeSantis must convince Americans that he’s likable enough to be president. The brainy DeSantis sometimes gets wrapped up in policy successes and fails to explain why his policies are superior to Trump’s, especially.
Contrary to many folks’ expectations, DeSantis didn’t draw much comment or attacks from the other candidates in the first debate, yielding the punching-bag position to Vivek Ramaswamy, who racked up the airtime by being constantly on the defensive and waging rebuttals. It didn’t hurt that his fellow candidates appeared to take delight in pecking at Vivek – recall how Chris Christie called him “ChatGPT” and Mike Pence said it would be “on the job training” with someone so young.
Ramaswamy probably won’t be granted so many opportunities this time. He’s likely to devote much of his energy to explaining how he plans to cut the federal bureaucracy by as much as 75 percent by the end of his first term if elected president. Vivek also promised to eliminate the FBI and the ATF, among others, while completely rearranging the federal government. Those are big ideas, alright. Having lived in the DC region for a quarter century, I think the town would dry up and blow away with the loss of so many government jobs. But it’s an idea worth exploring, isn’t it?
Nikki Haley’s challenge is to revive the positive feelings some viewers felt for her in Milwaukee. The “I’m a woman” luster will have worn off by now, and she’ll have to convince folks that there’s more there than just her calls for younger leadership and change at the top. She’ll also have to defend her claims to Trump being the most disliked man in America (or something like that). Is there more there than just a wishy-washy establishment candidate? We’ll see.
Mike Pence will need to try, again, to be seen as someone distinct from his service in the Trump administration. The January 6 topic has gotten old by now – really old – to Republican voters, at least, so Mike must show Americans that his steady leadership-oriented pitch can win the day. Most people, when they see Pence, probably envision Trump standing right next to him. Can he get beyond it?
“Nice guy” Tim Scott, Trump-basher Chris Christie and (who is he again?) North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum likewise have their work cut out for them tonight. Christie’s incessant whining about Trump isn’t moving people to want to vote for him and Scott kind of fades into the background when it’s not time to speak, as does Burgum. In other words, very few think about either as a potential president. Can any of these men change the narrative?
All (or some) eyes on Simi Valley for now. The biggest mystery is whether anything lasting will take place in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s statue. We’ll find out later.
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