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Last night’s GOP debate

Who can hook the big fish?

GOP presidential candidates stand on stage before the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, Wis. Associated Press/Photo by Morry Gash

Last night’s GOP debate
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Eight candidates for the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. presidency took the stage last night to make an appeal for support in a crowded field. Notably, the candidate who has twice as many backers as his closest rival declined to participate. Former President Donald Trump chose instead to give an interview with Tucker Carlson. That interview, combined with legal developments yet to unfold, promises to dominate upcoming news cycles. But that doesn’t make the debate unimportant.

First, all candidates for the nomination are aware that Donald Trump’s legal fortunes could turn in such an unfavorable direction he wouldn’t be able to stand as a presidential candidate. Second, the former president covets attention and has done so with great success since the 1980s. If a candidate managed to break out from the field and to win significant notice, the big fish might be lured back into the water. The only thing worse for Donald Trump than not being noticed would be for someone else to take center stage. At this writing, we don’t know what will happen in the courts. But the debate has occurred. Did anyone make a successful bid for the attention of voters that will force Trump to compete?

What are the strategies in view? Do the candidates seek, like Ted Cruz in 2016, to stay on friendly terms with Trump voters in the hopes of inheriting them if things fall apart? Or will any of them make frontal attacks? Chris Christie has been going right at Trump. So, too, has former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Mike Pence essentially had Trump opposition thrust upon him after the 2020 election and has been badly marginalized since then. Could he force a re-evaluation of his role by Republicans? Could any of these three win the bulk of the anti-Trump Republicans and thus better mount a challenge? The problem is that between them there are too few voters even to constitute a wave. The bigger question, maybe the biggest, is whether Ron DeSantis would be able to re-establish himself by taking on Donald Trump and fending off the ascendent Vivek Ramaswamy, who entered the debate with the potential to create a viral moment.

Vivek Ramaswamy dominated the debate. He had several potentially viral moments.

Well, now we know. Vivek Ramaswamy dominated the debate. He had several potentially viral moments. What were they? Climate change is a hoax. Nikki Haley’s pro-aid to Ukraine position is a precursor to her service on the corporate boards of defense companies. Donald Trump is the best president of the 21st century. He would pardon the former president on day one. The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance that has ever existed. We’ve celebrated diversity so much we’ve forgotten who we are. Many of these are positions with sharp edges. The young biotech titan endured plenty of attacks about his youth and lack of experience, but he overwhelmed those with his aggressiveness and potent, memorable quips. If he keeps going like this, he may tempt Donald Trump back into a debate just through the sheer controversy he will cause.

Who was the other winner? Pence, Haley, and Christie all tried to be the “adult” counterparts to Vivek’s tech-wunderkind having a campaign adventure. When Christie attacked Ramaswamy as a “Chat-GPT” candidate and one who copied some of Obama’s lines, I remembered his savaging of Marco Rubio in 2016. Ramaswamy came back forcefully. Most notably, he insisted that the older contenders not dwell on a Reaganite morning in America. He insisted we are in a dark moment. “It’s not morning in America,” he declared. The most effective Vivek fighter was Nikki Haley. She looked and sounded like the female candidate out of central casting. Haley was aggressive and mature at the same time. She was also knowledgeable and insisted on the benefit of her foreign policy experience in a highly believable way. It’s interesting to note that maybe the two best performers were Indian-Americans.

Who lost? Ron DeSantis lost because he was solid and mistake-free but also not all that noticeable amid the general intensity and fast exchange of the debate. He needs to find a way to break through, but that’s hard when a mistake could be so costly. Who else lost? Mike Pence seemed to take a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook. He ignored limits imposed by the rules and the moderators. In addition, he showed considerable irritation at various points. It did not benefit him. He seemed to demand deference based on his strong resume. While it is true that he has one, he continues to suffer from Trump’s constant disapproval and from the lure of candidates many may find more exciting.

Is Donald Trump coming back to the debates? Not yet, but if Vivek manages to start challenging him in the attention economy, he may be close to receiving a new nickname from the former president. That’s the big sign that he is taken as a threat.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University in South Carolina. He is the author of The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul. His work has appeared in a wide variety of other books and journals. He is formally affiliated with Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the Land Center at Southwestern Seminary.

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