Cameron Smith: How did Republican candidates – minus Trump – fare in presidential debate?

By Cameron Smith 

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)AP

This is an opinion column

The surprise of the first Republican presidential debate was Nikki Haley emerging as the top performer of the night. The former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations carried a commanding presence, made her policy points with precision, and managed to stay out of the childish antics that tangled some of the other contenders. The debate was certainly worth the typical voter’s time and opened up some critical differences between candidates.

Ranking the presidential field’s performance behind Haley, I’d go with Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum, and Asa Hutchinson.

Haley was the straight shooting adult in the room. On a federal abortion ban, for example, she had the most practical answer. “When you’re talking about a federal ban, be honest with the American people,” she corrected Pence. “We haven’t had 45 ‘pro-life’ Senators in over 100 years. So no Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president could ban all those state laws. Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”

With candidates like Ramaswamy promising to eliminate whole federal agencies, Haley connected with the practical aspects of policymaking in Washington. Haley also managed to go after the rest of the field and Trump without sounding vengeful or angry.

If the debate were held in 2002, Mike Pence would have been the winner. He’s a traditional, conservative Republican who is polished and composed. Pence offered soulful answers from a place of conviction. He’s my grandfather’s Republican stuck in a modern arena where personal appeal and energy matter deeply. On pro-life issues, Pence is a stalwart. He offered an anti-communist master class on foreign affairs. He even showed flashes of combativeness that we haven’t seen before. He certainly had a good night at the debate, but he’ll struggle to differentiate himself from Trump in terms of his recent track record. The successes of the Trump/Pence administration benefit Trump far more than Pence.

Ron DeSantis did no harm, but he didn’t really break out either. His major success of the night was standing on his own two feet instead of running in the shadow of Trump. For once, he was not the most Trump-like candidate on the stage. He effectively promoted his policy wins in Florida to the applause of the audience. His mention of removing “Soros” prosecutors was wildly popular. On two occasions, he ineffectively attempted to redirect the moderators away from their questions. He also looked generally uncomfortable on stage. Calm and positive answers could have done a lot for DeSantis, but, with furrowed brow, he came across as almost scolding the audience at times.

Like Haley, Scott stayed out of the petulant fighting, and he managed to keep his powder dry on the Trump issues. Couching himself as a product of the American Dream, his optimism was palpable. He went hard after teacher’s unions as “standing at the schoolhouse door” to block the educational advance of America’s children. Like Pence, Scott comes across as a gentleman with character, but he carried far less fire during the debate than Pence. Scott showed a mastery of the issues and capable communication. If he could somehow capture Ramaswamy’s connection with voters, Scott would soar.

The successful Indian-American entrepreneur came out of the gates hot but finished the night as essentially a Trump surrogate. To be clear, Ramaswamy has the MAGA energy on lock. He understands how to connect with Trump’s base voters in a way that none of the other candidates, including DeSantis, are able to match. Unfortunately, he’s also a lightweight on policy. Promising to gut entire federal agencies polls well, but it’s a fantasy without building massive Washington coalitions. Haley and Pence gutted Ramaswamy like a fish on foreign affairs, and he was reduced to a Kamala Harris-like nervous laugh on multiple occasions. Like Trump, Ramaswamy found a safe space in insults and attacks when he wasn’t carrying the moment on substance. The real question for Ramaswamy is whether positioning himself as Trump 2.0 will work when the original Trump is the frontrunner.

Chris Christie is smart, but he feels like he’s in the race to sink candidate battleships rather than run for president. He had his moments during the debate, but his fiery posture towards Trump drowns out any of his substantive policy arguments. If he wants to stay in the race, he’s going to need more than the anti-Trump pitt bull schtick.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum carries the small town charm that voters like. He’s consistent on the issues, and he’s more supportive of devolving power to the states than almost any other candidate in the field. At the same time, he seemed a bit out of place on stage. He didn’t claw for speaking opportunities like the rest of the field. That might set well with some voters, but he didn’t do much to separate himself from the pack. He’ll get some momentum from the debate, but the question is whether it will be enough for him to hang around.

Asa Hutchinson feels like the first man out. The weirdest moment of the night was Hutchinson trying to sell the idea that Trump is ineligible to become president based on the 14th Amendment. Even if he’s correct, he simply failed to connect with anyone. While he’s had an admirable political career, Hutchinson needs to hang this one up.

The bottom line is that we should see some narrowing of the field by one or possibly two candidates for the next debate. Trump had to be chomping at the bit to get on that stage. While Ramaswamy was a serviceable fill-in, I could almost feel Trump muttering about how much better he would have done. He’s probably right. The question is whether legions of D.C. consultants and lawyers can keep Trump from debate stages for much longer. My bet is that we see him sooner rather than later.

At any rate, the Republican presidential primary is off to the races, and we’ll find out whether Trump is the juggernaut he seems or simply “inevitable” like Hillary Clinton.