One of the highlights of the first 2024 GOP presidential debate came when the two faced off against each other, but many political pros say former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at the best performances of the night.
However, few political observers believe the debate changed the fundamental dynamics of a race still dominated by former President Donald Trump.
“There were a couple of candidates, like Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley, who were able to break through the noise and capture some good moments on stage,” said Jim Mantyh with the political firm Firehouse Strategies. “But that’s unlikely to change Donald Trump’s commanding lead over the rest of the field.
“Even the candidates who performed well tonight aren’t going to see the same polling bump or fundraising influx you’d typically expect after a major debate.”
Still, Ramaswamy made a lot of headlines with his aggressive, insult-laden performance. The leftwing magazine The Atlantic called him “the breakout star of the melee in Milwaukee,” and
Christine Flowers, who writes frequently about politics for the Delaware Valley Journal, was very impressed by Haley, who she said “wiped the stage with many of her male opponents with her unapologetic dedication to international diplomacy.”
She also believes the absence of Donald Trump was both a blessing and a curse. “The large absence left by Donald Trump’s refusal to participate allowed the other candidates to display their qualities and defects without being in the ‘orange’ shadow.”
Veteran Pennsylvania GOP operative Charlie Gerow with Quantum Communications, gave Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) a thumbs up.
“DeSantis needed to do well because his campaign has been flailing recently. He certainly did. He started strong and got stronger as the debate continued. I’d go so far as to say he dominated much of the debate.”
Former White House spokesperson Ari Fleisher agreed, saying DeSantis “had the strongest night of any of the candidates on stage.’ However, most of the reviews of DeSantis’ performance were more measured. “He did what he needed to do,” wrote Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review.
While Ramaswamy won rave reviews, particularly from the more MAGA quarters of the GOP, Gerow has a different take, arguing Vivek delivered the debate’s worst performance.
“He had the worst moment of the night when he said he was the only person on the stage who isn’t ‘bought and paid for.’ He came across as snarky and unlikeable,” Gerow said.
Ramaswamy was the frequent target of attacks from Haley over foreign policy, and he took incoming fire from former Vice President Mike Pence and former Gov. Chris Christie as well.
“We don’t need a president who is too old, and we don’t need a president who is too young,” Pence said, clearly referencing 38-year-old Ramaswamy. And Christie called him “the same kind of amateur” as then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007.
The Ramaswamy campaign’s communications director, Tricia McLaughlin said the debate “really was Vivek Ramaswamy vs. the establishment, and he dominated.”
“There’s blood on the floor, and it wasn’t Vivek’s,” McLaughlin added.
Corey Lewandowski, who played a key role in Trump’s 2016 surprise victory, said Ramaswamy “started strong, but showed some weakness on foreign policy that Gov. Haley exploited.”
Liz Preate Havey, a longtime Republican party official in the suburbs of Philadelphia was at the debate, and she saw it, too.
The only standing ovation of the night was when Nikki Haley went after Vivek, as not being capable of handling foreign policy,” Havey said.
“No real winner here tonight,” Havey added. “This is just the first step in a long process.”
And there was apparently no real loser, either.
For example, Lewandowski believes that while DeSantis “didn’t win, he didn’t lose, either. He lives to fight another day.”
The lack of a clear loser was another common takeaway from political strategists after Wednesday night’s debate. Several mentioned that Christie didn’t deliver the fireworks many folks were expecting, but he didn’t stumble, either.
Meanwhile, Gov. Doug Burgum (R-N.D.) and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) were largely afterthoughts on the edger of the debate stage, though Burgum did get a laugh referencing his basketball injury from the day before that nearly kept him from participating.
“I guess I took it too seriously when they told me to ‘go to Milwaukee and break a leg.’”
So who was the big winner?
“Every one of the eight is light years beyond Joe Biden,” said Gerow. “There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about 2024.”