Take five would-be presidents who’ve debated each other twice before. Stick them on a stage for two hours. You’d probably expect a rehash of the same talking points they made in August and September – and you’d be right.
But you’d also be wrong …
There were some pleasant surprises this time around. First, the NBC News-led panel stuck to matters that were germane to a GOP primary. There were none of the left-of-center questions coming out of left field that upset candidates and viewers alike during the previous Fox-moderated forum. And anchorman Lester Holt kept a tight grip on the reins, too. True, there were the occasional dustups (what would a debate be without them?), but it was never in danger of devolving into a food fight, as almost happened in Debates #1 and #2.
There was also remarkably little talk of the culture wars that were so prevalent in previous encounters. Perhaps that was because attention was redirected to an actual shooting war now underway in the Mideast instead.
Still, saying these candidates – former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. senator Tim Scott – covered the same ground would be like saying Columbus’s return voyages to the New World weren’t as exciting as the first trip. They all had a sort of “been there, done that” ring to them. And so did this debate.
There’s no use declaring a “winner,” either, because nobody hit a grand slam home run. Likewise, no one suffered a campaign-crippling stumble, either. All five candidates agreed Israel is good and Hamas is bad; most dumped on presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump for skipping yet another debate; all concurred fentanyl is a killer; the Southern border is a mess; China is a dark cloud growing darker on the horizon … oh, and Joe Biden is a really rotten president, too.
In short, no one made any real news last night …
Still, each had his or her own moment — for better or worse. So, in the spirit of grade school contests where every kid gets a trophy these days, let’s hand out the awards for Debate #3.
BIGGEST SURPRISE SHIFT: CHRIS CHRISTIE
To everyone’s surprise, the guy who has used his Jersey mouth like a buzzsaw to attack Trump seemed to be in elder statesman mode. No, Chris Christie hasn’t had a change of heart; but there was a distinctly different tone and demeanor. While other candidates insisted Israel needs to finish Hamas once and for all, Christie offered a more thoughtful, “America is here no matter what it is you need at any time to preserve the state of Israel.”
Nicely put … though, the old trash-talking Christie was more fun!
WINNING FRIENDS, INFLUENCING PEOPLE: VIVEK RAMASWAMY
If the billionaire businessman had been a loose cannon on deck before, he was a full-blown artillery barrage on Wednesday night. Ramaswamy had promised going in that he would be “unhinged.”
Boy, did he deliver …
The entrepreneur was in attack mode straight out of the starting gate. With his flamethrower set on “scorch” level, he rarely turned it down all night. He attacked the RNC’s boss, laying the blame for Tuesday’s less-than-stellar GOP performance at her feet.
“We’ve become a party of losers,” Ramaswamy said. “I mean, since Ronna McDaniel took over as chairwoman of the RNC in 2017, we have lost 2018, 2020, 2022 — no red wave that never came. We got trounced last night in 2023.”
That was just his opening number! He dished on DeSantis, went nuclear on Nikki Haley (more on that in a minute), and more or less took issue with everyone but Donald Trump.
Ramaswamy’s over-the-top verbal antics left many pundits perplexed. Some suspect since he is going down in the polls, he decided he might as well go out with a bang and take everyone down with him.
GAGA FOR THE GOV: RON DeSANTIS
A case can be made that DeSantis received the loudest, most frequent applause all night. And why not? As Florida’s governor, the debate was held on his turf; meaning he had the home-court advantage.
The Jacksonville native started strong – going directly after Trump in his opening remarks.
“If you look where we are now, it’s a lot different than where we were in 2016, and Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” he began. “He owes it to you to be on this stage tonight and explain why he should get another chance … He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp and he said, ‘Republicans are going to get tired of winning.’ Well, we saw last night. I’m sick of Republicans losing.”
It was game on from there … with DeSantis coming across as the most knowledgeable, substantive critic of Trump’s policies throughout the evening (as well as the one candidate on stage with the most consistent record of accomplishing the conservative talking points each of them tout).
MOST FIESTY CANDIDATE: NIKKI HALEY
The former South Carolina governor’s supporters say her “feistiness” is one of her best features, and she was feisty to the max on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, a less attractive feature – her “Have-It-Both-Ways Haley” side – was on full display as well.
“I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time,” Haley said. “I don’t think he’s the right president now.”
Wait … wasn’t Haley the leader of the #NeverTrump movement in South Carolina during the 2016 campaign?
She further criticized the man who plucked her out of Columbia and plopped her into the United Nations, accusing him of “putting us $8 trillion in debt, and our kids are never going to forgive (him) for that.”
In the same breath, though, Haley promoted the printing of more fiat money in support of a more interventionist foreign policy.
“I think he used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues; now, he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again,” Haley said. “I think we’ve got to go back to the fact that we can’t live in the past.”
Haley was her usual smooth self, shining on foreign policy questions and saying all the things that endear her to #NeverTrumpers and establishment Republicans. Yet she repeatedly showed she could go from smiles to baring her claws like a high-performance car going from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds (more on that in a moment.) Still, Haley gave ample demonstration of why the battle for second place is coming down to her and DeSantis.
LIKEABILITY IN OVERDRIVE: TIM SCOTT
The senator’s greatest asset in this campaign is that he’s Tim Scott. His greatest liability is also that he’s Tim Scott. And there, as Mr. Shakespeare wrote, lies the rub.
His geniality easily shines through: Genuine, spontaneous, and sincere. It’s almost impossible to dislike him. Yet it is equally impossible for a large number of Republicans to view him as a potential president, either. As one observer who missed the first two debates and was viewing the GOP field together for the first time told us, “Scott is so likable, but not forceful enough.”
To his credit, Scott seemed more like himself than the last go around. In California, it felt like he was trying to talk tough. And that approach fell flat. On Wednesday, it was back to the basics. As proof, he was talking about the Bible again, something he had previously toned down (and in some cases entirely expunged) in earlier remarks. Not so this time.
“We should turn back to faith, patriotism, and individual responsibility. We should stop choosing victimhood and start choosing victory. We should stop kneeling in protest and start kneeling in prayer.”
He was the Real Tim Scott once more.
If trophies were handed out to everyone, then surely a demerit deserves mentioning, too.
MUST PLAY BETTER WITH OTHERS: NIKKI HALEY, VIVEK RAMASWAMY
These two got off on the wrong foot, and things have gone straight downhill ever since. What started out as rubbing each other the wrong way has grown into open contempt and scorn. Wednesday night, it devolved into outright mudslinging.
If they were kids on a playground, Haley could rightfully shout, “He started it!”
Because Ramaswamy did.
He pivoted from a question about the Israel-Hamas War to mentioning Haley’s cozy relationship with the defense industry, saying, “do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?”
That remark drew groans, and even some boos, from the audience. It was hailed on social media, however, as an effective critique of Haley – a staunch neoconservative.
To her credit, Haley kept her cool until it was her turn to talk.
“I’d first like to say, they’re five-inch heels — and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” she said. “The second thing I will say: I wear heels; they’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”
That comment drew a big burst of applause, prompting Ramaswamy to up the ante.
When the topic wound around to a question about whether to ban the social media app TikTok – a position held by every candidate other than himself – Ramaswamy pounced.
“In the last debate, (Nikki Haley) made fun of me for actually joining TikTok,” he said. “Well, her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time, so you might want to take care of your family first.”
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley snarled.
As Ramaswamy continued to make his point about young voters using the app, Haley interjected “you’re just scum.”
The whole sordid business concluded with Ramaswamy making a point at debate’s end to shake hands with each one of his GOP rivals — except Haley.
If the two continue feuding like this, they might want to consider wearing bulletproof vests at the next debate. That gathering, incidentally, is scheduled for December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Oh, and Donald Trump is already saying he won’t be there for that one, 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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