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The First Debate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Morry Gash

On Wednesday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Republican voters finally got a chance to see all the Republicans on stage for the first time -- all, that is, except the front-runner, former President Donald Trump. He chose to do an interview with Tucker Carlson that streamed on Twitter. After the debate, I have some thoughts.


Asa Hutchinson needs to go away. He was a wasted space on stage. He offered nothing, had weaker answers than anyone else and was like the ugly kid who gets a sympathetic kiss at a spin-the-bottle contest. One can forgive a wasted performance in a debate, but his was wasted and useless.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum surprised me. He had torn his Achilles tendon earlier in the day and made it to the debate nonetheless. He had sharp answers, though he got little talk time.

Chris Christie delivered haymaker after haymaker to Vivek Ramaswamy. He had a really strong performance and is a solid debater. His pivot on the stupid UFO question was brilliant. I think the GOP base will struggle to come to terms moving his direction, but his debate performance was strong and helped him.

Sen. Tim Scott had a weak performance. I love the guy. I wish him well. He struggled to get in on the conversation. He didn't force himself in. He lacked former Vice President Mike Pence's aggressiveness. His answers were good, but he kept running out the clock. Hutchinson had a wasted and useless performance. Scott had a weak performance and needs to up his game for the next debate.

Pence's aggressiveness worked. His defense of conservatism was solid. Pence's problem remains his reliance on citing the "Trump-Pence administration" record and having no strong answer on why his boss should not be reelected to keep that record going. Mike Pence, why keep the second man of that administration and not the first? Answer that succinctly and strongly, please.


Nikki Haley might have won the debate. Her exchange with Ramaswamy was so solid. Her answers were polished. She showed real passion across a range of issues. I really think her performance had a lasting impression that people will remember. Her team should be proud.

Vivek Ramaswamy will get some support from the "burn it all down" crowd, but his problem is that this is Trump's constituency. The man said, on stage, that Trump is the best president of the 21st century. Why, then, is he running against Trump? It was obvious on stage that he is not really running against Trump. He's running as Trump's blocker and tackler against everyone else. He repeated lines from former President Barack Obama, Sen. Ted Cruz and others and avoided too much policy. On foreign policy, he is naive. His comparison to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as "their (Republicans') Pope" struck a lot of Jews as antisemitic and many Catholics as anti-Catholic. The bottom line is that it was clear on stage he intends to serve as a proxy for the man he thinks the strongest president of the 21st century and has no intention of becoming president himself.

I think Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis needed a strong performance. He got it. Everyone chose to go after Ramaswamy instead of DeSantis. He appeared above the fray. He stayed out of the fighting. He kept his answers coming back to the future and against President Joe Biden. His border answer was great, and I think his climate change response to a stupid hand-waving exercise was spot on. This should mollify his donors, large and small, even if it might not be enough to turn momentum back in his direction. I suspect, however, he can leverage his position on stage to rebound.


Mike Pence spoke the most at the debate. Asa Hutchinson spoke the least. Vivek Ramaswamy was the only candidate on the debate stage to avoid all criticisms of and attacks against Biden.

As for Trump, his Tucker Carlson interview generated no buzz or interest. Twitter counts a view as three seconds of half the video showing without audio. It appeared in people's timelines, and they passed it by. It was a strategic mistake for Trump to miss the debate. Now, we have unresolved questions: What will the polling show and who will get momentum? My guess is DeSantis gets another chance to wow voters.


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