Five Republican presidential candidates debated each other on Wednesday night. Once again, the winner was the guy who skipped the debate. The opening question was why these candidates—and not Donald Trump—should be the nominee, and it’s hard to imagine any of their answers landing with Republican primary voters committed to Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign had teased a major attack on Trump, but it predictably fizzled. Responding to the opening question, DeSantis argued that Trump is a “different guy than he was in 2016,” and that while Trump had promised “winning,” he had delivered “losing.” DeSantis didn’t sustain even that mild attack through the debate, though, and with Trump continuing to hold a dominant lead in polls, a kind of okay answer to one question about him is not enough to make the case either against Trump or for DeSantis.
The underwhelming responses to the Trump question reflected the underwhelming nature of the debate as a whole. None of these candidates appear to have a serious shot—former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was trying to show anti-Trump Republican billionaires that she was a worthy investment for one last-ditch effort to dethrone him, but she’s still nearly 50 percentage points behind in 538’s national polling average and 30 points behind in early-voting states, including South Carolina, where she was once governor.
What happened in the debate? They talked substance, often inaccurately. They tried to appear not-too-extreme on abortion without ceding too much ground with the Republican base. They competed for who could look most hawkish on the Israel-Hamas war, and they squabbled about Ukraine, with Vivek Ramaswamy attacking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But it’s hard to feel that any of it matters much because while the range of views on the stage is damning when it comes to the Republican Party as a whole, these are not the people who will set the party’s agenda for 2024.
Of the five candidates on the stage, DeSantis came into the primary hot and has been cooling ever since. Haley’s big momentum still leaves her under 10% in the national polling average. Ramaswamy has outperformed the Some Dude expectations he entered the primary with, but his ceiling appears to be low, with him polling at only around 5% nationally. And then, as NPR devastatingly put it, “Also on stage were South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.”
Sure, there were amusing moments, such as when Haley’s sheer loathing of Ramaswamy again came through:
But in the end, DeSantis’ alien-wearing-a-man-suit final expression kind of sums up the whole event:
It’s awkward and creepy and there are no winners here.
The band is back together, and it is a glorious day as Markos and Kerry’s hot takes over the past year came true—again! Republicans continue to lose at the ballot box and we are here for it!