The day after a presidential debate always brings with it a blizzard of frantic campaign activity. Staffers for all seven debate participants are flooding the airwaves, filling social media and clogging email inboxes with declarations of victory.
But who really won? And who really lost?
Bottom line: They all won. And they all lost. Wednesday evening’s encounter at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California was a two-hour political Rorschach test: Viewers saw whatever they wanted to see, and missed whatever they wanted to miss.
There were no knockouts, no blowouts – and no horrific unrecoverable gaffes. It was feisty, freestyle interpretation. Those who went into the evening believing their candidate was destined to triumph no doubt came away feeling as though their candidate had, in fact, triumphed.
And of course there was similar discussion of the gravitational impact of the presumptive party nominee – former U.S. president Donald Trump – who once again declined to participate in the conversation.
There was one clear victor Wednesday night, though: NoDoz, the stay-wake pills. Along with copious amounts of Red Bull to swallow them down, this extra “kick” was definitely needed to get through all 120 minutes of what amounted to a repetitive snooze fest. Seriously, this debate was like rewatching a movie you’d seen before – and realizing it wasn’t all that good the first time.
In a style befitting our reality television generation, there were multiple verbal traffic jams in which candidates were talking over each other – producing a deluge of syllabic static. Amidst the backtalk, crosstalk and over-talk, the evening produced a handful of good zingers, with each candidate getting in an applause line or two.
Still, the whole thing felt like warmed-up leftovers from last month’s debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – meaning there was once again no tectonic movement amongst the field of candidates.
That said, here’s a look at how each contender fared on Wednesday night, listed alphabetically.
North Dakota’s governor got more airtime — although he frequently interrupted the rest of the field to get it. Still, Burgum seemed more comfortable, more animated and better prepared than the last go-round (in fairness, not falling and tearing his achilles tendon on the day of the debate as he did a month ago probably helped). However, with poll numbers that are barely more than a flutter at the bottom of the pack, how many more debates he’ll be around for is a matter of conjecture.
As expected, the rotund former New Jersey governor gleefully kamikazed into Donald Trump with one of the encounter’s more memorable lines. Bashing the ex-president for skipping the debate (yet again), he looked into the camera and said, “Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself … we’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
That drew a big round of applause, and Christie will be dining sumptuously off of it for days to come.
Speaking of Trump, some viewers were surprised when Florida governor Ron DeSantis was the first rival to call him out by saying, “He needs to be on this stage tonight.”
DeSantis was his usual lawyerly self: Calm and even-keeled, even when moderator Ilia Calderon clumsily dredged up the Kamala-Harris-driven attack on how slavery is allegedly taught in Florida’s public schools (which Tim Scott brilliantly seized upon in an effective pivot).
DeSantis was also the grownup on the stage when moderator Dana Perino had perhaps the most idiotic closing question in the history of presidential debates by asking each candidate to write the name of the rival on stage who should be (in her words) “voted off the island.” DeSantis quickly put the kibosh on that juvenile antic by saying, “I think that’s disrespectful to my fellow contenders.”
The others quickly followed suit.
Regardless of what you think of him, he got that one right.
Her supporters love calling the former governor “feisty.” And she was — with huge scoops of snarky and surly thrown in for good measure. Nikki Haley was a lot of things during this two-hour encounter, but “Nice Nikki” went MIA as soon as the introductions were finished. The former South Carolina governor mixed it up with DeSantis, and fellow Palmetto Stater Tim Scott and, well, just about everyone on the stage.
Haley seemed to particularly savor going after Vivek Ramaswamy, though. There doesn’t appear to be any love lost between those two; at one point, she harangued him with a verbal pummeling that ended with, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber for what you say.” She was equally snide with Scott over his attack that she supported a .10 cent gas tax hike by snapping, “Bring it, Tim.” (There was a bizarre spat over some costly curtains, too). Her demeanor seemed better suited for a “Southern Charm” episode than a presidential showdown.
Women picked up on it, too, including former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis.
“Why is Nikki so shrill though?” Ellis tweeted. “This is why we don’t have a woman as president yet.”
The former vice president started off strong: Asked about the current United Auto Workers (UAW) strike – which the incumbent president participated in this week – Pence had a good reply: “Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line.”
He probably should have said goodnight and walked offstage after that because it was all downhill from there. Pence fumbled around like a political Mr. Magoo, vainly trying to carve out a place for himself in the discussion. He wasn’t successful, and his flailing wasn’t pretty to watch, either.
The fact Pence will have to fight to keep his place on the stage in future GOP debates should tell you all you need to know about the status of his moribund candidacy.
Arguably the greatest disappointment of the night was the lackluster performance from the self-proclaimed “CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.” True, Ramaswamy – the billionaire entrepreneur with the big ideas – once again brought his trademark passion with him to Simi Valley.
Last month, Ramaswamy almost stole the show with his near-nonstop smiling and infectious enthusiasm. But the sparkle seemed to be missing Wednesday night. He said many of the same things, yet the earlier élan was gone.
Ramaswamy tried a humbler approach this time (“I’m here to tell you, I don’t know it all”) and spent a big chunk of the evening swatting back attacks from Haley and others. A veteran of vitriolic broadsides from the far Left, he gamely hung on – although he seemed pleased to call it a night when the debate wrapped up.
One of the big three we were watching heading into this debate (along with Haley and DeSantis), Ramaswamy didn’t have a breakout performance. But he didn’t fall on his face, either.
More engaged and more aggressive than he was in the first debate – in which his performance was widely panned – Scott scored perhaps the night’s most moving moment. Asked to follow up on DeSantis’ reply to the aforementioned slavery question, he began with the obligatory observation that slavery was a terrible wrong. But rather than wallowing in the mire of victimhood as the Left loves to do, Scott struck out in a different direction.
“America is not a racist country,” he proclaimed, going on to recount how black families survived slavery and discrimination, then boldly added, “What was hard to survive was (Lyndon) Johnson’s Great Society… where they decided to take the black father out of the equation to get a check in the mail. And you can now measure that in unemployment and crime and devastation.”
Impressive … although Scott has shown throughout this campaign that he has the ability to turn race-baiting on its ear.
Once again, though, the person looming larger than life last night was the one who wasn’t even there. Although Donald Trump was 2,286 miles away in Michigan, he was a distinct presence in the California auditorium. Yet after spending two hours watching his seven leading contenders spin their wheels in the mud, the early betting says don’t expect him to show up for Debate #3 in Miami, Florida, on November 8, either.
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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