GOP primary voters looking for a star performance from a presidential candidate were left disappointed yet again, as the third debate left the state of the race largely unchanged.
The entire event had a “been there, done that” feel about it, as a familiar cast of candidates faced off to deal with (mostly) familiar issues: Ukraine, China, fentanyl, and the economy.
Gov. Ron DeSantis reprised his role as the “successful Florida governor with a record of conservative accomplishments.” Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley stuck to her script as the smart, tough, foreign-policy professional who likes mixing it up on the debate stage.
Sen. Tim Scott was so committed to his role as the Ned Flanders of the campaign that he managed to work a scripture reference even into his answer on economic policy (from the book of Proverbs). Former Gov. Chris Christie was doing improv, looking for opportunities to take shots at Donald Trump.
And speaking of Trump, he remains the star of the 2024 GOP primary show. His presence was felt, even as he held his own rally in Florida to counterprogram the debate.
“They’re not watchable,” Trump said Wednesday night of the debates. And his campaign announced he’s not going to participate in the fourth debate, scheduled for Tuscaloosa, Ala., next month.
In the role of designated antagonist: Vivek Ramasway.
After spending the second debate trying to undo some of the damage to his popularity by playing nice, “unhinged” (his word), Ramaswamy was back on Wednesday.
The entrepreneur opened the night by declaring the GOP “the party of losers,” challenging RNC chair Ronna McDaniel (who was in the crowd) to come on stage and resign over the party’s poor electoral performance, and insulting the NBC News moderators. (“This should be Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and Elon Musk. We’d have 10 times the viewership asking questions GOP primary voters actually care about.”); then turning his fire specifically on NBC’s Kristen Welker: “Would the Democrats hire Greg Gutfeld to host a debate?”
That was all in his first answer.
In his final answer, Ramaswamy had a message to the Democratic Party: “End this farce that Joe Biden is going to be your nominee. He’s not even president of the United States. He’s a puppet for the managerial class,” Ramaswamy said. “Be honest about who you’re going to put up. Joe Biden should step aside now and end his candidacy, so we can see — if it’s going to be [Gavin] Newsom or Michelle Obama or whoever else — just tell us the truth so we can have an honest debate.”
In between, Ramaswamy attacked Nikki Haley’s abilities as a mother.
Answering a question about whether or not to ban TikTok, a position held by every candidate other than himself, Ramaswamy used it to go after Haley.
“In the last debate, Nikki Haley made fun of me for actually joining TikTok. well her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time, so you might want to take care of your family first,” Ramaswamy said.
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley snarled. As Ramaswamy rambled on, Haley muttered, “You’re just scum.”
He also took on both Haley and DeSantis with a quip describing supporters of U.S. support for military action abroad as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”
For some GOP observers, Ramaswamy’s attacks teed up Haley to be the winner of the night.
“Haley got most of the hits, and I think she defended and counterattacked well,” said GOP strategist Michael Dennehy. “She’s just a much better debater and comes across as the most authentic. DeSantis was a close second.”
Jim Merrill, a veteran of the Mitt Romney presidential campaigns, agreed Haley benefitted from Ramaswamy’s swipes.
“She won the night with the ‘scum’ comment in defense of her family. Also, she had a very strong abortion answer that’s likely to get attention from the press. She was solid all around.”
Others said DeSantis had the best showing. New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn), a DeSantis backer, said his candidate “is clearly the most serious, thoughtful and unflappable candidate on that stage.”
But fellow Granite Stater and GOP communications professional Alicia Xanthopoulos had a less upbeat take on the debate as a whole.
“No votes earned. No votes lost. Time to thin the herd if Republicans want someone who can beat Biden. In other words, anyone but Trump.”