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Suddenly, it just tumbled out: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
That was former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s rebuke of the businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, easily the best line of last night’s messy and awkward GOP primary debate. Ramaswamy, for his part, produced his own meme-worthy quote during a heated exchange with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina: “Thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting.”
Such was the onstage energy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum: chaotic, sloppy, largely substance-free. Seven candidates desperately fought for fresh relevance; none of them came away with it. Rather than pitching themselves as the candidate who can beat former President Donald Trump, these Republicans seemed to be operating most of the time in an alternate universe, one in which Trump was absent not just from the stage, but from the race.
Eight years ago, so many candidates were vying for the Republican nomination that the party took to splitting primary debates into two sessions: the main event and the undercard. The latter contest was mocked as the “kids’ table” debate. So far this time around, there’s only one unified debate night. Nevertheless, Trump has such a commanding lead over his challengers that, for the second debate in a row, he hasn’t even bothered to show up and speak. Voters have no reason to believe he’ll be at any of the other contests. Trump counterprogrammed last month’s Fox News debate by sitting down for a sympathetic interview with the former Fox star Tucker Carlson. On Wednesday, Trump delivered a speech in Michigan, where a powerful union—the United Auto Workers—is in the second week of a strike.
All seven candidates who qualified for the debate—individuals with honorific titles such as governor, senator, and former vice president—spent the evening arguing at the kids’ table. Barring some sort of medical emergency, Trump seems like the inevitable 2024 GOP nominee. As Michael Scherer of The Washington Post pointed out on X (formerly Twitter), the candidates onstage were collectively polling at 36 percent. If they were to join forces and become one person (think seven Republicans stacked in a trench coat), Trump would still be winning by 20 percent.
How many other ways can you say this? The race is effectively over. So what, then, were they all doing there? A cynic would tell you that they’re merely running for second place—for a shot at a Cabinet position, maybe even VP.
One candidate decidedly not running for vice president is Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has taken to (gently) attacking his old boss. Nor does former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to want a sidekick or administration gig. Christie has staked his entire campaign on calling out Trump’s sins, and so far, it’s not working. Earlier in the day, Christie shared a photo of himself at a recent NFL game, with a cringeworthy nod to the new Kansas City Chiefs fan Taylor Swift: “I was just a guy in the bleachers on Sunday … but after tonight, Trump will know we are never ever getting back together.”
At the debate, Christie stared directly into the camera like Macho Man Randy Savage, pointer finger and all, to deliver what amounted to a professional wrestling taunt. “Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself!” Christie began. “You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things, and let me tell you what’s going to happen.”
Here it comes.
“You keep doing that, no one up here’s gonna call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re gonna call you Donald Duck.”
“All right,” the moderator Dana Perino said.
The crowd appeared to laugh, cheer, boo, and groan.
The autoworkers’ strike, and criticisms of the larger American economy, received significant attention at the debate. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum laid the strike “at Joe Biden’s feet.” Pence came ready with a zinger: “Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line; he belongs on the unemployment line.” (Another Pence joke about sleeping with a teacher—his wife—didn’t quite land.)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, once seen as Trump’s closest rival, stood center stage but spent most of the night struggling to connect as all of the candidates intermittently talked over one another. Scott, perhaps trying to fight back against those who say he lacks charisma, frequently went on the attack, most notably against Ramaswamy, who, in the previous debate, claimed that his rivals were “bought and paid for.” Later, Scott attacked DeSantis for his past controversial comments about race: “There is not a redeeming quality in slavery,” Scott said. But he followed that up a moment later with another sound bite: “America is not a racist country.”
However earnest and honest Scott’s message may be, it was impossible to hear his words without thinking of the man he’s running against. So again: What was everyone doing last night? In an alternate reality, a red-state candidate like Scott, Haley, or Burgum might cruise to the GOP nomination. In a way, Fox Business, itself, seemed to broadcast the night’s proceedings in that strange other world. The network kept playing retro Reagan clips as the debate came in and out of commercial breaks. And those ads? One featured South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem—not a 2024 presidential candidate, but certainly a potential VP pick—making a pitch for people to move to her sparsely populated state. Another ad argued that the Biden administration’s plan to ban menthol cigarettes would be a boon to Mexican drug cartels. What?
It was all a sideshow. Trump’s team seemed to know it, too. With just over five minutes left in the debate, the former president’s campaign blasted out a statement to reporters from a senior adviser: “Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump.” For all of Trump’s lies, he and his acolytes can occasionally be excruciatingly honest.