The once-crowded 2024 Republican presidential field is a lot less congested these days – meaning there will be a lot more elbow room at the fourth and final debate of the year this evening in the Heart of Dixie.
That doesn’t mean flying elbows won’t find their marks, though … especially now that candidates polling below the political equivalent of the Mendoza line are no longer taking up space on stage.
North Dakota governor Doug Burgum suspended his campaign on Monday – slamming the GOP’s “clubhouse” debate requirements as “nationalizing the primary process and taking the power of democracy away from the engaged, thoughtful citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire.”
While partisans ponder that process, the four candidates who did get a clubhouse invite will appear on Wednesday evening at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The “Final Four” of this GOP undercard battle? Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump will be MIA, as he has been for the prior three debates. He’ll be schmoozing big-dollar donors at a super PAC fundraiser instead. Oh, and for those of you who remembered him (or the fact he was running), former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson will once again be left out in the cold. Hutchinson hasn’t qualified to participate in a debate since the first one back in August.
This will be the last opportunity for GOP voters to take inventory of their leading options (minus Trump) side-by-side before the first votes are cast next month. So, the stakes couldn’t be higher for all of those candidates left standing.
If you’ve ever been around a political campaign, you know the final 24 hours before a debate is crunch time. The campaign team and top consultants huddle with the candidate and identify a series of “do’s” that need to be covered and “don’ts” that must be avoided at all costs.
Let’s look at what each candidate should focus on — and sidestep — as they get ready for the “Tussle in Tuscaloosa.”
DO: KEEP PRESSURING TRUMP
DON’T: BE ONE ISSUE
The “Mouth from Mendham Township” may be a mere blip on South Carolina’s polling radar, but he does have a flicker of hope in New Hampshire and a half-flicker in Iowa. So, Chris Christie gets a final shot to once more push the message that made him jump into the race in the first place: His fervent belief that Trump shouldn’t be president again.
Christie’s top “do” task is keeping up the pressure on his former political ally. It’s his signature issue, and he can’t afford to back off of it now (not that there’s much chance of that happening).
But Christie has harped about Trump so much, he is viewed as a single-issue candidate. Or rather a single-purpose candidate. That’s unfortunate because as a two-term governor of New Jersey, chair of the Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission, and former U.S. Attorney, he could bring a lot more to the discussion.
Why hasn’t he? Good question …
Accordingly, Christie’s “don’t” is self-limitation. He should allow his wide range of experience to shine and (potentially) broaden his #NeverTrump base. After all, nothing but “Trump, Trump, Trump” has kept his support in the doldrums all year.
DO: GROW A PERSONALITY
DON’T: FEAR THE ATTACK
Seldom in presidential campaign history has a candidate started out with such dazzlingly high prospects – yet fizzled so spectacularly.
The rap on Ron DeSantis is he’s charismatically challenged. Which is odd because that wasn’t a problem when he successfully ran for the U.S. congress (three times) and for governor of Florida (twice). Nor was it a problem when DeSantis first addressed audiences in the early-voting Palmetto State, according to our founding editor Will Folks.
Still, in this race we hear over and over that DeSantis isn’t connecting with people on a one-on-one level.
His chief “do” for tonight? Letting his personality shine. Or in absence of that, growing a personality to begin with. Voters may like what a candidate says intellectually, but they connect with him or her emotionally. They want to feel that the candidate shares their views deep in his or her bones – and can relate to them and the challenges they are facing.
DeSantis has an edge on every candidate in the field – including Trump – when it comes to the consistency of his conservative record. But if he can’t convey that to people – if he can’t communicate it to them in a way that makes them believe in it (and him) – what happens?
We are seeing the answer to that so far in his campaign … and time is running out for DeSantis to reorient his political trajectory.
On the “don’t” side of the ledger, DeSantis must not be afraid to go after his closest challenger, Nikki Haley. The former Palmetto State governor is threatening to overtake the #2 spot in this race nationally any day now – and has already overtaken DeSantis in several early-voting states. DeSantis’ diminishing hopes would be enhanced by landing a big blow against Haley.
Would that be enough to revive his fading fortunes, though? We shall see … assuming he is able to deliver such a blow in the first place.
DO: KEEP SURGING
DON’T: LOSE YOUR COOL
Former president George H. W. Bush famously christened the phrase “Big Mo” coming out of 1980 GOP Iowa caucuses (although that “Mo” quickly evaporated in the subsequent New Hampshire primary). Today, Haley has inherited the “Big Mo” mantle, although in typical neoconservative warmongering fashion she’s referring to it as a militaristic “surge.”
Therefore, the overriding “do” for the heir to the Bush big government/ warmonger mantra must be keeping the momentum/ surge going her way. People are drawn to winners, and Haley is doing everything shy of pouring a bucket of Gatorade over herself to look like one – although she conveniently neglects to mention the gap in the polls between her and Trump remains so large you could grow a garden in it.
Haley’s “don’t” involves a clear and present threat: Vivek Ramaswamy. Watching Haley and Ramaswamy take increasingly deeper digs at each other during debates one, two and three was like watching a cheesy soap opera whose storyline kept going from bad to worse. The two clearly dislike each other — and they’re taking fewer pains to hide it.
Now that Ramaswamy knows he can get under her skin (more on that below), he could bait her by saying something designed to get her goat. If that happens, Haley can’t afford to lose her cool. American voters like a candidate with backbone who’s unafraid to stand up for themself. (Think Ronald Reagan’s famous “there you go again” admonishment of Jimmy Carter).
But voters also expect the response to be measured and proportionate. Haley barked, “you’re just scum” at Ramaswamy in the last debate. Exceeding such a response this time could slam the brakes on the neocon invasion she is currently making on the GOP second tier.
DO: KEEP BASHING WOKE
DON’T: MAKE IT PERSONAL
The 38-year-old billionaire businessman is caught between a rock and a hard place. How come? Because the very thing that put Ramaswamy on the political map could also remove him from it.
Ramaswamy made a name for himself by calling out woke extremism – and doing it better than anybody else in the field. While others cowered with fear in the shadow of Cancel Culture, Ramaswamy didn’t hesitate to take it on directly and identify it as the bullying, tyrannical force it is. That got him noticed – and quickly became his brand. Folks now expect it from him, and it’s essential for him to keep hammering it Wednesday night – which is his “do.” Given the recent shocking displays of progressives’ naked antisemitism on social media (and in America’s city streets), he should have no shortage of fodder to work with.
For his “don’t,” Ramaswamy must not forget there is an “off” switch. When going on the offensive, he can make things very personal and – for moderate GOP voters, anyway – come off as offensive. Consider what happened in his previous debate exchange with Haley. After recounting how she had assailed him for being on the social media service TikTok, he shot back with, “well, her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time, so you might want to take care of your family first.”
Even non-Haley supporters winced. In American politics, attacking the family is viewed as hitting below the belt.
Memo to Vikek: “Go after Haley to your heart’s content Wednesday night, if you like. But keep the kids out of it.”
We’ve heard unconfirmed rumblings our founding editor will be in attendance at tonight’s “Tuscaloosa Tussle.” Stay tuned to the FITSNews’ X account for updates.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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