The ‘select seven’ 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls will take the stage for their second debate on Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
That’s one less candidate than appeared at the initial encounter in Milwaukee five weeks ago – meaning the ‘Republican’ winnowing process is moving at a snail’s pace as the campaign enters a pivotal fall period. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchison was voted off the island this time. He’ll be watching on the sidelines along with businessman Perry Johnson, former CIA agent and former congressman Will Hurd, and former radio host Larry Elder.
Another candidate, Miami mayor Francis Suarez, has already dropped out of the race.
In many ways, the ‘select seven’ are more like the Seven Dwarfs. That’s because the star attraction in this primary – the presumptive GOP nominee – will once again be missing from the show. Former U.S. president Donald Trump will be campaigning in Clinton Township, Michigan as the seven people hoping to take him down duke it out in California.
Though the candidate count has changed, the need for a stellar performance hasn’t. In fact, it’s more urgent now than last time. With the primary voting season now visibly on the horizon (the Iowa Republican Caucus launches this shebang in three-and-a-half months), time is no longer a candidate’s friend. It’s crunch time, people. Every day matters, and every bit of media exposure must count.
A bad slip Wednesday night could quickly turn into the kiss of death for a floundering campaign. Conversely, all seven candidates will be looking for a “magic moment” propelling up the GOP pecking order – but especially Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (a.k.a. the “big three” prospective rivals to Trump).
With that in mind, let’s review what’s at stake for the GOP field in alphabetical order …
North Dakota’s governor still struggles with the “Doug Who?” handicap. His message, “I did it in Bismarck, I can do it in D.C., too,” is falling flat. Probably because most Americans don’t know where Bismarck is. At least Doug Burgum gets to soak up some California rays, which will be especially enjoyable for him since winter will start in North Dakota any day now.
Burgum looked out of his depth at the first debate – and quickly became an afterthought to livelier exchanges. There’s nothing to suggest he will be a factor in this debate, either.
There’s no doubt what we’ll hear from the former New Jersey governor. Chris Christie has done everything short of making his campaign slogan, “I’m running just to take down Trump.” He spewed bile at the former president like a machine gun last time around, and there’s no reason to expect anything different this time. If you liked what he said in Wisconsin, you’ll love him Wednesday night.
Will that move the needle for him – or against Trump – amongst any GOP voters? Doubtful …
DeSantis is the first of the “big three” candidates Republicans will be watching particularly closely — and is arguably the one with the most to lose. The Florida governor burst onto the presidential scene last winter like a shooting star – dazzling broad swaths of the GOP electorate. Now, though, he faces the very real prospect of flaming out. With his plane rapidly approaching the end of the runway, DeSantis is either going to take flight … or crash and burn.
DeSantis must speak to multiple audiences simultaneously tomorrow night. First, he needs to show his increasingly antsy high-level supporters and big-dollar donors that he is still capable of winning the nomination. He also needs to show the news media he remains a viable contender. Lastly, and most obviously, he’s got to grow grassroots support – something which has been hindered by a failure to connect on a personal level with many voters.
If those sound like debate goals that align with a candidate clinging to second tier status, well … that’s what DeSantis has become at this stage of the race. And unless he finds a way to reorient his trajectory (and fast), that’s what he will remain.
Another of the “big three” candidates, Haley has two goals in the debate: 1) Solidify her campaign as the rallying point for the GOP establishment, #NeverTrumpers and various other non-MAGA factions. 2) Keep her recent momentum moving forward.
Haley scored big points with many viewers last month by snapping at rival Vivek Ramaswamy.
“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” she said.
That prompted one of the biggest rounds of applause at the first debate, and Haley basked in its glow for days. Now that she reaped the rewards of a swift, pithy debate comeback, will she be locked, loaded, and ready for a repeat performance? Haley was adept during the first GOP exchange – and worked tirelessly to exploit her success.
If she can do the same in Simi Valley she will have established herself squarely as Trump’s top rival.
The most unenviable podium on the debate stage Wednesday evening will be the one occupied by former vice president Mike Pence. Despised by MAGA as a traitor and scorned by the establishment for carrying the “taint of Trump,” there really isn’t anywhere on the GOP electoral spectrum for Pence to go. He played against type in Milwaukee by discarding his milquetoast, Mr. Nice Guy demeanor and pouncing on Ramaswamy like a Bengal tiger. Not only was that strategy an epic fail, but the abrupt personality shift left many viewers bewilderedly scratching their heads and saying, “Huh?”
Pence has no path to victory in this race. Like Christie, all he can really do at this point is impact the trajectory of his rivals.
The third of the “big three” candidates to watch, the 38-year-old entrepreneur lit up the stage in last month’s debate.
Clearly the most passionate of the pack, Ramaswamy is not afraid to let his energy burn with the intensity of a Hollywood searchlight. While that energy initially produced a bounce in the polls, his numbers have slid down since – leading some observers to wonder if he was a “summertime fling” for GOP voters.
Ramaswamy is certainly on terra firma amongst GOP voters when going after his favorite twin boogeymen: Woke culture and Washington, D.C. It’s the finer points of the presidency, such as foreign policy, he still needs to master. That’s where he is most vulnerable and where his rivals are likely to pounce Wednesday night. Ramaswamy must protect that soft underbelly while also demonstrating he can lead in areas beyond the culture wars.
The predicament facing South Carolina’s junior senator is best summed up in one word: Relevance. Tim Scott has to demonstrate he is relevant to the national conversation in 2023. Sure, almost everybody likes him. And he is genuinely likable. And yes, his up-the-hard-way success story is heartwarming. And genuinely touching. And he has performed admirable yeoman service in the Capitol Hill trenches during his nearly dozen years in the House and Senate.
Yet the presidency requires more than that … and while Scott has proven he can hang with the top tier, his lackluster initial debate performance has raised questions about whether he belongs there.
Scott needs to dig inside and let viewers see a depth of commitment. Otherwise, he’ll remain a nice guy stuck eating at greasy spoon diners in New Hampshire and Iowa until the primary season ends … at which point he would return to his day job in the U.S. Senate.
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 protected].
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