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First Republican debate: The biggest loser and the biggest winner

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The person who most enjoyed the first Republican debate was undoubtedly former President Donald Trump. By not participating in the forum, he stayed above the fray, and what a fray it was. The night was full of acrimony and sloppiness; verbal punches were thrown but few landed. Humor and humility took the night off. The eight candidates who gathered in Milwaukee have in common that they are massively trailing the former president; nothing that took place on the debate stage will turn that around. 

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy had substantial momentum coming into the GOP debate in Milwaukee. In just two hours, he blew that advantage, and – most probably – any chance he might have had of securing the nomination. He appeared smart-alecky and disrespectful of his fellow contestants; he interrupted constantly and displayed none of the sobriety and substance so needed by a 38-year-old eager to convince voters he belongs in the Oval Office.

Ramaswamy on several occasions boasted of being the only political novice on the stage, derisively describing his fellow candidates as PAC-puppets; he also insulted the group by describing them as “bought and paid for.” The lack of civility was shocking, at odds with Ramaswamy’s trademark sunniness. During the first break, he must have heard his attacks were not resonating with the audience, since he subsequently toned down the hubris, but the damage was done.

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Nikki Haley, as expected, went after Ramaswamy on numerous fronts and especially on foreign policy. On the contest with Ukraine and on other issues too, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor summoned facts and experience to lend her credibility.

She was passionate but not emotional – a difficult balance for female candidates. Similarly, she stood her ground but did not come across as harsh – another challenging dynamic for women in politics.

If Ramaswamy was the biggest loser of the night, Haley was the biggest winner. Tough on national security and securing the border, smart about education, she was also the only candidate to stake out a winning position on abortion. 

If Ramaswamy was the biggest loser of the night, Haley was the biggest winner.

Though she declares herself proudly pro-life, she also acknowledges that Republicans must respect the deeply personal nature of the issue and find a middle path. Haley laid out an approach that includes making contraception universally available, encouraging adoption, banning late-term abortions and stopping the demonization of the issue. 

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It was an important night for the Haley campaign, which has failed to gain traction in recent months; it could prove a turning point.

Chris Christie also turned in a solid performance, despite being loudly booed by the audience for disparaging former President Trump. Of all the contestants, he seemed the most relaxed and drew on substantial personal achievements while serving as a federal prosecutor and as governor of New Jersey to make his case. 

Christie’s finest moment came during his final remarks when he reminded the audience of how hard – and rare– it is to unseat an incumbent Democrat, a feat he accomplished when he defeated Jon Corzine to become governor of New Jersey in 2009. As he recalled, the last Republican to beat an incumbent Democrat president was a governor of a blue state; that, of course, was Ronald Reagan who beat Jimmy Carter in 1980.

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Still, the odds of Christie advancing in the race are slim. The vast majority of Republicans still support Donald Trump, and Christie has made it clear that he is bitterly opposed to the former president’s reelection.

Indeed, with Trump now commanding a 40-point lead in the primary race, and enjoying widespread loyalty among Republicans, all candidates needed to break through and give voters a reason to choose them over the former president. No one achieved that kind of success on Wednesday night. 

The candidate who most needed a leap forward was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose campaign has been in free fall for weeks. Though the Florida governor made no drastic missteps, he looked awkward and uncomfortable. He failed to answer most of the questions directed to him, instead doggedly inserting pre-prepared sound-bites that rarely met the moment.

The worst moment for DeSantis came when the moderators asked the candidates to indicate whether they would support Trump for president, should he win the nomination. Everyone but Christie and Asa Hutchinson signaled support for the former president; DeSantis raised his hand only after seeming to look left and right for reassurance. Viewers took note.

Tim Scott was unexpectedly subdued during the debate, which was unfortunate. His normal good cheer and faith in our country is a tonic in these bitter political times. 

Others on the stage included North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who had torn his Achilles tendon that morning playing basketball with his staff. Considering his recent visit to the emergency room, he can be excused for having failed to excite the crowd. Like former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, Burgum is unlikely to go far.

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The other major player was former Vice President Mike Pence, who, contrasted especially with Ramaswamy, was the grown-up in the room. He had a decent night and doubtless appealed to conservatives who applaud his hard line on abortion and on national security issues, but his religiosity limits his reach.

Viewers hoping to find a candidate capable of pushing Donald Trump out of the race were likely disappointed. Perhaps the evening will convince Virginia Gov.Glen Youngkin to throw his hat in the ring. Without a doubt, there is an opening.

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