People expected the first GOP presidential debate sans Trump to be boring. It wasn’t. Grumpy Mike Pence bickering with a caffeinated Vivek Ramaswamy was entertaining. We half expected Pence to tell 38-year-old Vivek to get off his lawn. However, the guy who won the debate was probably the guy who wasn’t there.
As for the rest, Asa Hutchinson (who?) and Chris Christie (a total tool) should be voted off the island before the next debate. Burgum and Hutchinson seemed like they wandered onto the debate stage from the audience at first, but Burgum has his fans, and he seems like a great guy (and the one who emphasizes small town values). Pence, Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Ron DeSantis made it through to the next round. Second place still feels like DeSantis’s to lose, but he hasn’t sealed the deal. And that’s for #2.
Trump won the debate because no clear victor emerged from the squabbling eight on the stage, and he’s so far ahead in the polls. No one had a slam dunk performance, although several acquitted themselves well. Some helped themselves (Nikki Haley), some didn’t hurt themselves (Ron DeSantis), but no one blew away the competition (views on Ramaswamy’s animated pro Trump performance are polarized.)
By the time we fell asleep on debate night, Trump’s interview with Tucker Carlson had racked up an astonishing 129 million impressions on X, formerly Twitter. By Thursday afternoon, it was up to 235 million impressions. In contrast, 12.8 million viewers watched the Fox News debate with the other candidates. Impressions aren’t necessarily views by a single person, but they’re still massive numbers that continue the realignment of the media (thank you Elon Musk).
For those ensconced in a bubble watching only the GOP debate at first (like us, as we were there), it felt like a time warp, an alternative reality of a political world without Trump, a political Barbieland divorced from the real world. The debates were policy-focused and serious, but the reality is that millions of people watched the Tucker interview instead, and on Thursday night, Trump is traveling to Fulton County, Georgia, to turn himself in, so he will continue to suck the air out of the room. He’s way ahead in the polls. It’s hard to see how the debate changes that much, although Haley, Ramaswamy and maybe DeSantis could see shifts in their numbers.
It was a pretty diverse field. That’s a little ironic considering the Democratic field is basically geriatric white men.
That being said, there were some other winners, losers and other performances deserving scrutiny:
Haley was a debate winner because she was the candidate who most exceeded expectations. No one was talking about her before the debate, but they are now, at least as serious vice presidential timber. Views on her are polarized in the conservative base. Some see her as a pro-war neocon, whereas others label her a “globalist.” She was strongest schooling Ramaswamy on Putin (although the degree we should be funding Ukraine is worthy of serious debate.) She found a way to talk about abortion that other candidates might emulate.
The Florida governor was a debate winner because he didn’t make a huge mistake. He was the guy with the most to lose; if DeSantis had had an awful night, or a big gaffe, instead, it might have spelled the end of his already stalling campaign. He was a bit awkward, over-serious, and seemed to shout a bit at the beginning. But that’s authentically who he is – the guy who probably wouldn’t get the joke in the room because he’s too busy thinking about destroying cartels and firing George Soros prosecutors (both strong points for him on the debate stage). However, he didn’t hurt himself because, when he did speak, he was strong and substantive, and he’s got the policy successes in Florida to back it up. Weirdly, Pence and Haley trained their ire on Ramaswamy, leaving DeSantis virtually unscathed. People who listened only on the radio, though, felt DeSantis vanished too much.
Why is Pence in this thing? He’s blamed for being part of the Trump administration by those who hate it and some of those who love it blame him for standing up to Trump on J6 (he was right to follow the Constitution). He’s thus triangulated out of serious consideration.
One suspects that Pence is in this thing for redemption; to get validation that he wasn’t wrong that day (he got it on the debate stage). He probably helped himself somewhat because he dominated a lot of the debate. But he came across like a Bush era politician who stumbled through a wormhole out of the 1990s onto the debate stage. Overall, his style of speaking comes across as annoying, he blew through the buzzer too many times, and no one seems to like the guy. That might be unfair, but it doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere.
He’s an acquired taste, and a polarizing figure. The older folks sitting behind us at the debate described him as smooth and said they liked him better before. However, an 18 year old we know liked Ramaswamy the most. On our wall, our conservative audience was sharply divided; for every comment from someone who said they loved him, came another person who thought he seemed smarmy or like a used car salesman. He was great in moments (the tonal reset), but seemed to lack gravitas in others (the battle with Haley over Ukraine). Ironically, of everyone on stage, he sort of seemed most like a politician.
Ramaswamy’s biggest problem, though, is that he was the only candidate in the “Trump lane.” That gains him fans on X. However, Trump voters are going to pick Trump in the end, not Trump Lite.
There are accusations that Ramaswamy is just in the race to beat up the other candidates to help Trump. It kind of makes sense.
However, he’s being talked about a lot more than before the debate, and it’s a lot worse to be ignored. He strikes us as the Andrew Yang of the 2024 presidential campaign.
He’s a smart, serious guy who seems well-versed in policy. But he doesn’t have a lot of charisma on a debate stage. He seemed a little….sleepy. The Republican field is better with him in it.
The moderators could have hit the transgender/education issues sooner, and some questions were goofy (COVID lockdowns causing crime?) But they did a good job steering the debate toward serious policy discussions and away from the dramas around Trump. It ended up being an informative debate. There were too many candidates on the stage though. However, Trump dissing Fox for Tucker was very bad for Fox.
He just comes across like an as*. He actually can be funny (the UFO line) and he’s not wrong on some policies and positions (defunding the police for example), but he loses the narrative when he rants and raves about Trump. It seems aggressive and personal.
Christie has come out opposed to state bans on transgender treatments for children, which in our view, disqualifies him from any serious consideration.
Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson
Seriously, what were those guys doing there was our first thought?
However, when Hutchinson was Arkansas’ Republican governor, he vetoed an anti-transgender health care bill that would’ve prohibited gender-affirming procedures for children. Again, as in Christie’s case, we believe this automatically disqualifies him from any serious consideration.
Burgum earned some fans as the debate wore on, though.
Here is an interesting perspective on why Burgum won the debate.
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