Here we are, T minus 70 days and counting until the very first votes are cast in the 2024 Republican presidential primary season. Showtime is getting close, folks and the cast of characters hoping to be sworn in as commander-in-chief come January 2025 is about to make yet another nationally televised plea for GOP support.
One thing remains the same as the two previous debates: The star of the show, former president Donald Trump, will not be in attendance – although you can bet the leader and presumptive nominee of his party will have plenty to say about it afterward.
Other things are different this time around, though. For example we won’t see several “extras” who appeared in previous episodes of this program. Former vice president Mike Pence has dropped out of the race, while former Arkansas govenror Asa Hutchinson and current North Dakota governor Doug Burgum didn’t meet the RNC’s participation criteria.
Perhaps the biggest change in debate No. 3? A new television network. The RNC pulled the plug on Fox News after last month’s calamitous encounter which featured questions better suited for Democrats than Republicans – and the moronically juvenile interrogatory “which opponent should be voted off the island?” as the grand finale.
While Fox certainly deserved to be discarded as a debate host, many conservatives wonder whether NBC’s Lester Holt lobbing questions will be much of an improvement.
Who will Holt be grilling? Here’s a list of the participating candidates in alphabetical order, followed by the one word that best sums up their situation heading into the debate:
CHRIS CHRISTIE: KAMIKAZE
Whatever else he may be, the former New Jersey governor isn’t dumb. Chris Christie knows he won’t be the GOP nominee. Neither has he made a secret of his true goal for running this time: Kamikazing right into Trump’s campaign. He did that in Debates #1 and #2, and there’s no reason to suspect he’ll do anything different in #3.
But playing the self-ordained martyr willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good (denying Trump his third presidential nomination) carries with it a steep political price. Poll after poll shows Christie is the one candidate non-Trump Republicans say they won’t vote for under any circumstance.
That doesn’t make a dent in Christie’s modus operandi. Look for him to deliver more Trump zingers than an insult standup comic at The Improv Club.
RON DeSANTIS: DESPERATION
“Never let ‘em see you sweat,” the old adage tells us. That’s especially good advice for the Florida governor right now. Over the past ten months, Ron DeSantis has gone from being viewed by many as a dragon slayer to Barney the Dinosaur — a big, blustery, but ultimately harmless creature.
His fading fortunes were boosted Monday when Iowa governor Kim Reynolds gave him her backing. It’s the first bit of good news to come DeSantis’ way after a long losing streak. He must at least tie Trump in the January 15 Iowa caucuses to keep his fortunes alive. Should Trump sustain a serious blow in any of his multiple court cases, DeSantis needs to be positioned to pick up the pieces from the former president’s shattered campaign.
Minus scoring big in Iowa, it would only be a matter of time before the governor limps home to Tallahassee to stay.
DeSantis’ problem all year has been he offered himself to conservative Republicans as providing Trumpism without the baggage of Trump personally. Many then asked, “Why would I want a Trump alternative when I can have the real thing?”
DeSantis hasn’t offered a convincing rebuttal. He’s got one more chance to do so Wednesday night.
NIKKI HALEY: SURGING
Want to play a fun drinking game? Every time you read the word “surging” in a Nikki Haley press release or email blast to supporters, take a shot. You’ll be blotto in minutes. It’s her campaign’s new mantra, which it chants over and over with the fervor of Hare Krishna disciples.
Haley’s managers smartly positioned her from the get-go as the rallying point for #NeverTrumpers and establishment Republicans suffering from “Trump fatigue.” Backed by a boatload of neoconservative special interest money (“warmonger war chest?”), that strategy is working well – to a certain extent. As the GOP field starts to shrink, departing candidates (most notably Will Hurd) are throwing their support behind Haley. But there’s a flaw with that strategy, too: Those ex-candidates didn’t have much support to begin with. (That’s why they won’t be on the stage in Miami and will be sullenly watching from home instead.)
Haley’s mission on Wednesday night is to keep her momentum rolling (dare we say “surging”?) and thus convey the sense that when the tune stops playing in this game of Musical Chairs, it will be she and Trump making the mad dash for the final seat.
In fact, expect her and DeSantis – her main rival in the battle for No. 2 – to get especially testy on the Miami stage.
VIVEK RAMASWAMY: RELEVANCE
The self-described president of anti-Woke, Inc., Vivek Ramaswamy is waking up to an unpleasant political reality these days: His campaign peaked too soon. In the dog days of summer, especially at the time of the first GOP debate in Milwaukee in August, the billionaire businessman was conservatives’ Flavor-of-the Month. Bright, bubbly, and a soundbite machine that cranked out seemingly endless pithy quotes that struck a chord on hot-button social issues (from Critical Race Theory in classrooms to parents’ rights.)
Then came Debate #2 in California, and the bloom quickly faded from the rose. A series of stumbles (especially on foreign policy details) made Republicans question whether the GOP’s glib Happy Warrior was actually up to the job. His downward slide in the polls ever since shows many voters have relegated him to Not-Ready-for-Political-Prime Time status.
Ramaswamy’s goal Wednesday night is simple: Convince Republicans he’s still relevant to this race. Otherwise, he faces another round of guest appearances on Fox News where he’ll bemoan Woke campus culture. Nice, but not as good as moving into that big white mansion in downtown D.C.
TIM SCOTT: VIABILITY
The dilemma confronting South Carolina’s junior senator is familiar. Mr. Nice Guy has its limits. After earning a reputation for being the nicest guy on Capitol Hill, how does Tim Scott convince voters he’s got the right stuff in a world filled with tough characters? There’s Donald Trump’s machete mouth, Vladimir Putin’s aggressive militarism, China’s increasing bellicosity, and a blood-thirsty Hamas that’s giving ISIS a run for its money in savage cruelty.
Make no mistake: Scott has inner toughness. You don’t rise from the impoverished environment he grew up in and reach the heights he has without it. But voters aren’t seeing it. Scott’s mission Wednesday night is to put his inner firmness on display and convince Republicans that he truly is a viable presidential candidate.
Tonight’s debate starts at 8:00 p.m. EST and will be carried live on various NBC News platforms and live streamed on Rumble. For those of you keeping score at home, Debate #4 is scheduled for December 6, 2024 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Stay tuned to this media outlet for a recap of tonight’s proceedings …
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].
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.