It is fair to wonder how the other Republican candidates for president can catch up to Donald Trump. What is their plan to beat someone with a 30-plus point lead in the polls and who’s been using his many arrests the way the Super Mario Brothers use red mushrooms — they only make him stronger?
While hope is not usually a viable political strategy, most of Trump’s opponents appear to be simply hoping that the former president will be taken up in the Rapture between now and Jan. 15, the date of the Iowa caucuses.
But absent intervention from on high, Wednesday’s first GOP primary debate gave us a glimpse at how Trump’s opponents intend to proceed in what has been a snoozer of a primary campaign.
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To be in the debate, it should be noted, the candidates were forced by the Republican National Committee to sign a loyalty pledge to support the eventual winner. Of course Trump, who refused to attend the first debate, would not sign the pledge himself.
That tells you all you need to know about how this primary is going.
The stage in Milwaukee was full of politicians with politicians’ titles. And then there was that one other guy. No experience. No record. And holding views that are, charitably, eyebrow-raising.
Without Trump to play himself, Vivek Ramaswamy tried to fill his shoes.
“This isn’t complicated, guys,” the 38-year-old with no political experience and a scant personal history of even voting said breezily to an early question.
Once again, the Republican presidential field features a rich outsider who views the GOP as an empty vessel to be occupied by whatever pirate can take it over. Ramaswamy demonstrates no ideological underpinnings. No policy orthodoxy. He’s just a slick sloganeer who seems to think the job of president is talking and dominating the attention economy anyway you can.
And lately, Ramaswamy is leaning into it.
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He’s been flirting with 9/11 trutherism. Turning Ukraine over to the Russians, and Taiwan over to the Chinese. Downgrading America’s alliance with Israel. Decriminalizing hard drugs. Imposing a massive inheritance tax.
None of this sounds good to a conservative like me. But Ramaswamy grabs attention in a world that rewards attention pirates who can turn a phrase, even if they are somewhat annoying. If he manages to get past 15% in the post-debate polls, Trump will come for him soon enough.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had the most riding on the debate’s tilt. Most of what GOP voters know about DeSantis’ campaign comes from four sources: Trump, who relentlessly attacks DeSantis and nobody else; Never Trump, Inc., which thinks the way to defeat the former president is in a redo of Biden vs. Trump; Democrats, who see things similarly to the Never Trumpers; and the mainstream media, which might well benefit from getting a bigger audience if Trump becomes the nominee.
As of early August, DeSantis had faced more than $20 million in negative independent TV attack ads, more than Trump and President Biden combined ($17.3 million). For him, Wednesday night’s goal was to rise above the noise and negativity and, in his own words, tell Republicans who he is and why he’s running.
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DeSantis had some nice moments on his conservative record as Florida governor. He didn’t dominate the stage, but he may have stabilized himself. He lives to fight another day, but he still has a fight on his hands in his quest to consolidate the non-Trump field.
The two people who pleasantly surprised were former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Pence turned in an energetic and feisty performance aimed squarely at the Christian conservatives of Iowa (the caucuses are his Alamo), and Haley, in a stunning turn, supplanted a listless Chris Christie as the principal anti-Trump foil on the stage.
“Biden didn’t do this to us; our Republicans did this to us, too. … Trump added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this,” Haley said, wheeling on Trump’s handling of the national debt.
Pence and Haley both mixed it up with Ramaswamy, perhaps playing to the elderly Fox News viewers who may view the newcomer as a too-brash whippersnapper.
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Here’s who didn’t emerge from the debate: a candidate who is really ready to move on Trump. And yet Republicans are facing a general electorate that hates Trump (64% say they definitely or probably won’t vote for him) and overwhelmingly believes a convicted felon shouldn’t be eligible for the presidency (70% say no way). Everyone on stage except Asa Hutchinson and a coy Christie raised their hands to say they would support Trump even if he’s convicted.
All of this is unfolding against the backdrop of a Biden presidency that is consistently criticized on the economy, according to poll after poll after poll. If the GOP nominates someone south of 70 years old who isn’t in jail, Republicans would have more than a fighting chance.
But will a single voter who is currently with Trump switch to one of the other Republican candidates after this debate? You have to be skeptical.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another Trump arrest motorcade to watch.
Scott Jennings is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a senior CNN political commentator. @ScottJenningsKY
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.