Another senseless idea, another bout of desperation and another fruitless exercise. That was the fourth Republican presidential debate, minus Donald Trump. Not even longtime media
personality Megyn Kelly could inject much consequence into these often fiery but mundane forums brought to existence by the Republican National Committee.
Though Kelly herself was terrific. More on this below.
Everyone reading this certainly realizes that there’s still a shade less than six weeks to go until Republicans in The Hawkeye State meet at their appointed places to take part in the state’s unique caucus nominating process to select a 2024 Republican Party nominee.
In a normal nominating year, nearly forty days is a lifetime’s worth of opportunity for candidates to make their pitches to the portion of the electorate that remains open to such overtures. And, again, there are usually a great many folks who fit the “undecided” or “soft support” categories, at least enough to throw the final result into doubt at this point.
Yet, when the four Republican presidential candidates left the stage in the post-debate cool-down period Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there was an overwhelming sense of finality to their hugs (of family members), hand shakes and well wishes for their competitors (my limited lip-reading abilities indicated so, though Nikki Haley didn’t go anywhere near Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy). I didn’t see any of them say it, but “This is it” must’ve been on the tips of their tongues. And I didn’t note and I don’t recall whether there was any music playing in those few slow, semi-awkward moments, but an appropriate theme would’ve been “When Will I See You Again”, the 1970’s one hit wonder (?) by the forgettable group The Three Degrees that goes something like “When will I see you again? When will we share precious moments?... Are we in love or just friends? Is this the beginning, or is this the end?”
All of these conundrums came up on Wednesday, and in my estimation, none of them were resolved, at least to anyone’s satisfaction, since this debate, somewhat like the first three “official” forums, felt more like a dress rehearsal for the main production that everyone had been working on for more than a year now as well as superfluous at the same time.
The atmosphere also seemed like spring training before the long baseball season or a junior varsity contest prior to the big game between heated rivals, the problem being that one of the teams – embodied by Donald J. Trump – didn’t show up to take the coin flip before the action.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments during the two-hour program that approached significance, there just weren’t enough of them to make it worthwhile. The “star” of the show, Trump, wasn’t there, and his understudies – primarily Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the establishment’s newest darling, Nikki Haley – couldn’t carry the individual acts for the big-time.
Neither could the other two participants, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who has assumed the “Why is he there?” invisible nametag) and enthusiastic but sometimes irritating businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, both of whom appeared as though they’d be fascinating to engage in one-on-one conversation, but can’t really be envisioned, at least with Trump in the race, as the only Republican with presidential stature.
Can you see Chris Christie in Beijing walking beside Xi Jinping after a solemn negotiating session? Would the Chinese then suggest that all of America has a weight problem?
We probably won’t know for a while how many Americans actually watched Wednesday’s show, but it’s not as if there isn’t some interest in political dog-and-pony events. Last week’s Ron DeSantis/Gavin Newsom “debate” on Sean Hannity’s show drew over five million pairs of eyes, just slightly less than the digital attendance for the first three GOP debates. Not bad for an event that wasn’t heavily promoted outside of the “normal” establishment media circles.
Ron DeSantis takes off the gloves, Nikki Haley takes a beating
Though the content of Wednesday’s debate was similar to the first three events, the tone was somewhat different – at least in the first half hour or so. Governor Ron DeSantis and his team must’ve conducted some new strategy sessions in the past four weeks (the time since the last debate), because the Florida governor we saw last night was a different competitor than we’d seen before.
DeSantis named names in Alabama, and the name he cited most was Nikki Haley. Perhaps stung by his polling droop in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, DeSantis hit Haley early and frequently – and didn’t let up the rest of the way. So did Vivek Ramaswamy (attack Haley), though we’re used to the personal quarrel between the two Indian-American candidates by now.
But it was evident that DeSantis and Ramaswamy weren’t about to allow Haley to do her usual performance – the “I’m a woman” routine – and get away with it. It almost seemed that DeSantis and Ramaswamy had agreed before the program to act as a tag-team to bludgeon Haley, and it was very effective, hitting her on her South Carolina record, her work in corporate America, her capitulations on the transgender issue and even her service in the U.N.
Ramaswamy didn’t hold back, at one point holding up a handwritten sign that read “NIKKI = CORRUPT”, a prop for the cameras! This engendered more than its share of eyerolls and grimaces from the woman many pundits had said “won” the first three debates. The beat-down was so intense that Chris Christie, looking straight at Ramaswamy, defended Haley, accusing the much younger man of getting too personal rather than sticking to issue differences.
What, the woman can’t take it? And here Nikki probably thought Trump calling her “Birdbrain” was insulting!
Christie himself clearly intended to be more combative from the get-go, though, as he pointed out, he didn’t receive a question until 18 minutes into the “action”. Christie, with good reason, might’ve seen this event as his last chance to knock at Donald Trump – and he didn’t shy away from the opportunity.
The debate’s most salient moment might’ve been when Christie went on a lengthy diatribe about Trump’s supposed “unfitness” for office, whereby the 2016 establishment candidate repeatedly tried to goad Ron DeSantis into agreeing with him. It didn’t happen, and the audience’s boos indicated they didn’t follow along with the big man’s complaints, either.
The moderators allowed an entire segment to be on Trump, which certainly must’ve made the race frontrunner quite happy after he’d finished his fundraiser in Florida.
Ron DeSantis wins, Nikki Haley loses
As has been the case since the debates began in late August, Ron DeSantis has stood out for his substantive – and truthful – answers regarding his agenda and accomplishments in Florida. Chris Christie accused him of avoiding answering the moderators’ questions, but I don’t think that’s the case.
If these show forums were judged strictly on content, I believe DeSantis would have been deemed the “winner” every time, including on Wednesday night in Alabama. But presentation counts too, and this is where DeSantis comes up short. For one thing, he stands about a foot behind his lectern, which is noticeable and makes him appear robotic… or nervous.
DeSantis is clearly used to speaking in front of audiences without being “confined” to one spot, but he’ll need to practice his body language to appear more authentic. That being said, what comes out of his mouth, which is what counts, is convincing.
I doubt establishment media pundits will be so glowing about Nikki Haley’s showing in the fourth debate. For good reason, she was constantly on the defensive and seemed the least “worthy” of the four candidates on stage. Presidential? Hardly. Trump must have been chuckling the entire time. Were Iowans watching? The RNC’s new criteria a success – mostly
Now that the debates portion of the 2024 GOP race is probably over (with a possibility there might be one more prior to the Iowa Caucuses), it’s fair to assess whether the Republican National Committee’s new criteria to limit the size of the debate stage worked – or didn’t work.
Each successive debate “field” was smaller than the one before, which reserved more speaking time and moderator queries for the “viable” candidates, which was nice. The only difference in Alabama (from the one previous in Miami) was the absence of since-departed Senator Tim Scott, which meant that Scott’s speaking time was redistributed among the four survivors present, and it was noticeable.
The program flowed nicely, though it appears as though the candidates hadn’t learned their lesson from the first three debates… there were far too many interruptions. It reminded me a little of Doug Burgum (in the second debate) constantly jutting in as though to say “HEY! I’m over here! I wanna talk too! Pay attention to me!”
But at the same time, the field wasn’t winnowed all that much, and the fact Christie was added at the practical last minute this week smelled fishy. The Republican powers-that-be probably felt as though just three candidates on stage wasn’t enough, so they bent the rules (a lot?) to make room for the Christie lectern. Strength in numbers or just additional girth?
There isn’t much to be learned for future nominating races, where there might be more credible candidates – and one less all-but “sure thing” frontrunner.
Birdbrain won’t be Trump’s vice president, nor will any other 2024 candidate
As would be expected, Donald Trump has been rather circumspect with information and hints regarding who he might select for his running mate in 2024. With former Trump VP Mike Pence a definite “no” this time around, it would be natural for Trump to look among his fellow competitors for talent and potentials to see whether any of them had “the right stuff”.
Wednesday night’s (most likely) final “undercard” debate demonstrated, once again, that there weren’t any good possibilities among the finalists on stage. Chris Christie was rumored to be someone Trump looked at back in 2016, but there’s absolutely no reason for the former White House occupant to do so now. Christie’s sometimes lame attempts at humor and persistent peppering of Trump’s beliefs, governing style, ethics and persona disqualified him long ago. If Christie is sorry or regrets any of his past harsh and unfair criticisms, he didn’t show it in Alabama.
Ditto for Nikki Haley, though she’s still thought to be under consideration by the Trump people to constitute a “unity” ticket for the contentious 2024 general election push. But Haley keeps reiterating, again on Wednesday night, how she’s the one (presumably alone) to bring the country together on the touchiest issues, and, by those standards, her “interview” for Trump’s vice president went very badly. As Ramaswamy said, she’s “corrupt”.
Besides, there are rumors being tossed around that the “No Labels” group is interested in Nikki, if/when she gets stomped on (electorally, of course) by Trump and probably Ron DeSantis. Talk about the kiss of death – being linked to “No Labels” -- even if the Haley promoters didn’t ask for the dishonor.
Vivek Ramaswamy, as has been his practice, avoided direct shots at Trump again in Alabama. Here’s thinking that Trump appreciates Vivek’s intellect and tacit support of his presidency, but Ramaswamy could also serve as a distraction were Trump to pick him to be present at events and stand in the background for official presidential appearances. Vivek is a leader. Leave the photo-op stuff to the wall flowers like Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley.
Governor Ron DeSantis, as indicated above, once again delivered a solid presence and thorough knowledge on Wednesday night, has likely had it with Trump to the extent that he would never agree to be around him for four years. Stupid nicknames aside, Trump and DeSantis live in the same state – which makes them constitutionally ineligible to run together. Unless, of course, Trump were to move his residence to New York or New Jersey, where he spends the hot months (which would bring with it serious tax consequences, too).
I doubt either man considers a Trump/DeSantis combo a possibility. So there won’t be a Trump rival veep. No surprise! Move on!
Megyn Kelly the top debate moderator of 2023
Granted the competition was less than intense, and I never thought I would say this, but Megyn Kelly was by far the best debate moderator this year. Expectations were high for the former Fox News host, especially since every network that bothered to cover the event probably played the opening clip from the August, 2015 forum where Kelly went right at Donald Trump for his alleged treatment of women.
If Kelly was nervous regarding her reemergence on the 2024 political stage, she didn’t show it. Smiling and confident and prepared with just the right amount of edginess, Megyn clearly enjoyed her moment in the sun, even if Donald Trump didn’t show up to accentuate her performance.
Kelly speaks with the confidence of someone who talks for a living – which she does – and her professional ability made for an entertaining program on Wednesday evening. Megyn made the best of a difficult situation. Was Fox regretful for letting her go?
When Will [We] See You Again?
The fact that Wednesday’s debate was on the little-known NewsNation Channel will probably dampen its viewership numbers. I had to look up where it could be found on DirectTV for my father – and he’s a habitual news watcher (and not just Fox News, either).
Here’s hoping that undecided voters in the early states were able to see the program, if they were so inclined. The fourth GOP debate was the best thus far, especially in revealing Nikki Haley’s true colors, but would the intense back-and-forth dislodge Trump as the race frontrunner? Doubtful. We’ll know more next month.
And perhaps then we’ll also discover whether we’ll see any of these candidates again.
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