For two hours on Wednesday night, eight Republicans managed to do what hasn’t been done since Richie, Potsie, and Fonzi’s day: They made America pay attention to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The first debate of the 2024 presidential election was an animated encounter, to be sure – full of zingers, cheers, jeers and poignant moments. But there was no breakthrough. No clear “winner.” Nor, for that matter, was there an obvious loser. Many elbows were thrown, multiple verbal jabs hit their intended targets – and a few of the candidates went home with sore guts.
But there was no knockout blow – and as a result, there was no decisive moment which shot one candidate to the head of the pack (or rather the head of the pack chasing former U.S. president and presumptive 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump). Nobody committed a fatal gaffe, and nobody loosed a lightning bolt that lit up the heavens, either.
All the GOP candidates who participated in yesterday evening’s debate are claiming victory today. Every one of them. And absent a clear-cut winner, here is some degree of validity to several of those claims. A debate’s outcome is highly subjective, after all. Minus an outright triumph or disaster, each candidate’s supporters see what they want to see – nd they presume the rest of America sees it that way, too.
Except, that’s not true. With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of the “Milwaukee Melee” as seen from this author’s perspective …
Ron DeSantis: Florida’s governor got what he had to have: A good night. The first question was directed at him, and he got off to a solid start with a strong response that showed a degree of passion critics said had been missing.
DeSantis also appeared to do the most effective job of any of the candidates addressing bread-and-butter issues impacting middle-class Americans.
“We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline,” he said.
A barrage of attacks aimed his way didn’t materialize. Some observers are saying he looked and sounded the most presidential of the crowd. Regardless, DeSantis stayed on an even keel all night and turned in a performance that will likely calm jittery supporters.
Was it a breakthrough? No. But it was a solid showing that should reestablish him as the top alternative to Trump in this crowded field.
Vivek Ramaswamy: The Ohio entrepreneur was a blunt, articulate soundbite machine with some of the night’s most colorful lines – and he arguably exuded more energy and authenticity than the rest of the field combined. As expected, the self-proclaimed CEO of “anti-woke” didn’t mince words, saying “I am genuinely worried that the American Dream no longer exists.”
That’s hardly “morning in America” language, but Ramaswamy’s infectious charisma – and outsider appeal – managed to lend silver linings aplenty to these doom and gloom pronouncements. And once again, he wove plenty of substance into his soundbites.
Ramaswamy also seemed to get under the skin of his rivals, too – pushing them into unforced errors. While some expected DeSantis to draw the most fire of any candidate on stage, it turned out to be Ramaswamy. Little love was lost between him and Chris Christie in particular, with each giving as good as he got. Though it was the 38-year-old entrepreneur’s first debate, he smiled more than the rest of the field combined – even when he was getting popped by his rivals. That’s a smart long-game play.
Whether he won, placed, or showed, Ramaswamy certainly had fun.
Nikki Haley: Her supporters said she absolutely nailed it. “She did fantastic,” one of her allies told me late Wednesday evening. Beltway pundits agreed, with establishment Republicans – and a few Democrats – gravitating to Haley after her strong showing. Her feistiness was on full display – with the former U.N. ambassador even chiding the moderators at one point saying, “ya’ll need to get control of this debate.”
Haley showed no hesitancy in mixing it up with Ramaswamy, either — repeatedly, in fact. She powerfully pivoted from Ukraine to China (her strong suit), telling him, “you have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” More than any other moment, that line felt like the strongest verbal jab delivered by any of the candidates on the stage.
Haley also enthusiastically played the gender card every chance she got, which the audience lapped up. But Have-It-Both-Ways Haley was on display, too. Consider abortion: She began by identifying as pro-life but then segued into the need for what she called a “consensus” on the issue with a little something for everyone. That may be magic to moderates’ ears – and may even mimic something Trump has said in the past – but Haley should remember this isn’t the general election. And she isn’t sitting where Trump is in the polls. Calling for a national Kumbaya moment on abortion won’t win her many GOP primary votes.
Tim Scott: Serious politicos don’t expect South Carolina’s junior senator to win the presidential nomination, but there is very serious talk about him as a possible running mate or landing a high-profile position in the next Republican administration. For that to happen, Scott must practice the admonition found in doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” After spending two hours largely flying under the radar as other candidates on the stage soaked up the spotlight (notably Ramaswamy and Haley), it was “mission accomplished” for him in Milwaukee.
Scott deftly handled his first question of the night about his record on spending (an odd choice to single him out on this given the sketchy fiscal history of some other candidates standing on stage). From there Scott was on solid footing for the rest of the night, steering clear of the mud-slinging while staying firmly in safe territory.
For example: “…the best thing to do is bring our jobs home from China.”
Scott didn’t razzle-dazzle anyone – but he didn’t have to. That was all he needed in order to fight on another day and continue positioning himself for future possibilities.
Mike Pence: Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was how the genial, soft-spoken former Veep turned into a pit bull. He was so aggressive it seemed he only took breaks from talking about God to attack other candidates. For example, he lit into Ramaswamy by calling him a “rookie,” adding, “this is not the time for on-the-job training.”
Then, it was back to God again a little later. Pence may see himself as a Biblical warrior – because on Wednesday night in Milwaukee, he came to the stage with an Old Testament level of ferocious vengeance.
Did it resonate? Not really. Shedding his “kinder, gentler” impulses seemed about as effective for Pence as his previous milquetoast persona.
Which is to say “not very …”
Chris Christie: The former New Jersey governor went into the debate at a disadvantage. His arch nemesis, Donald Trump (his reason d’etre for running in the first place), wasn’t there. And let’s face it: What fun is it taking swipes at a no-show? So Christie focused his ire (which he always keeps stocked in abundance) on Ramaswamy instead.
At times, he got downright snarky, moaning, “I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough, already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.”
Booed repeatedly by the GOP faithful, by the end of the evening viewers had had enough of Chris Christie, too.
Asa Hutchinson: The former Arkansas governor is “Christie Lite,” in the race solely as a foil for attacking Trump – who again, wasn’t there. Hutchinson didn’t seem completely there either, though. As one observer told us, “He looks pale, like he’s been bitten by a zombie but hasn’t completely turned yet.” Ouch!
Hutchinson would have made an ideal presidential candidate — in 1988. Frankly, his few comments sounded like they came from that era, too. Deprived of his foe’s presence, the hosts paid him only perfunctory attention – which is all he’s getting here as well.
Hutchinson is unlikely to qualify for next month’s second debate in California, meaning he is likely to become one of the first victims of the GOP “field winnowing.” Assuming the Zombie apocalypse doesn’t get him first.
Doug Burgum: North Dakota’s billionaire techie governor was so thrilled to be out of Bismarck that he wouldn’t even let a last-minute tear of his Achilles tendon keep him from being on the debate stage. Sadly, his injury was the most interesting thing about Burgum’s appearance. He got a good laugh with the self-deprecating line, “I guess I took it too seriously when they told me to ‘go to Milwaukee and break a leg.’” His lasting legacy to presidential politics will most likely be: Never play a game of basketball with your campaign staff on debate day.
As for his performance on the stage, Burgum – like Hutchinson – was underwhelming. Also like Hutchinson, he will struggle to qualify for the second round of debates.
Donald Trump: Though he wasn’t there in the flesh, he was certainly present in spirit. Most of the GOP candidates talked surprisingly little about the man they hope to defeat – even when prompted to do so with direct questions from moderators. Yet he was very much present in the mind of everyone in Milwaukee last night, candidates and audience alike.
Love him or hate him, you’ve got to concede this about Donald Trump: While the show must go on, it isn’t as entertaining when the show’s star attraction is missing. And Trump knows it, too.
Worth noting? Trump held his own show during the debate – with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. As of 9:00 a.m. on the morning after the debate, it had received a staggering 169.3 million views.
Trump did engage on social media following the debate, giving props to Ramaswamy for his answers and – as expected – slamming Christie.
Founding editor Will Folks contributed to this report. For much more feedback and fallout from the debate, stay tuned for a very special edition of our ‘Palmetto Political Stock Index‘ this coming Sunday morning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at email@example.com.
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