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No likely Republican candidate emerges from debate to take on Trump

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Probably Donald Trump won the first Republican presidential debate as the conflict did little to consolidate the field around one or two choices as the gaggle of candidates struggled with the difficult questions of what to do about issues like abortion, climate change and a possibly convicted Trump.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is definitely not a champion debater, looked down too much, but was able to convey the idea that he has a successful record in Florida making tough decisions. He remains stuck with a six-week abortion ban that few Americans support and lacks the kind of depth at national policy and proposals that is typical of top-tier candidate. Still, he managed to hold his own.  

The Vivek Ramaswamy surge is likely over as his “revolution” came across as even too far out for the Republican electorate, especially when it came to foreign policy. He was surging, and so he was the target of the most hits and more than a few of them landed, especially former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s ChatGPT crack. Some commentators think the debate helped Ramaswamy – I doubt it, but then he is the only candidate who has shown any momentum so far. 

PUNDITS NAME THEIR WINNERS AND LOSERS FROM GOP DEBATE

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s infectious positive belief in the American dream and a country of opportunity came through clearly and likeably.  

Former Vice President Mike Pence, 2024 Republican presidential candidate, from left, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, and Vivek Ramaswamy, chairman and co-founder of Strive Asset Management and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, during the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Republican presidential contenders are facing off in their first debate of the primary season, minus frontrunner Donald Trump, who continues to lead his GOP rivals by a double-digit margin. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former Vice President Mike Pence, from left, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, and Vivek Ramaswamy, chairman and co-founder of Strive Asset Management, during the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty)

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley really displayed by far the most expertise at foreign policy and came across credibly on education and abortion. She raised her profile and there are a lot of Republican women out there who would be attracted to her message.   

Christie showed he still knows how to prosecute a case and played to type but probably didn’t gain any voters. 

The surprise of the evening was former Vice President Mike Pence who had a lot more kick in him than he ever showed as vice president. Though it’s unlikely that it will catapult him to the nomination, it certainly will resuscitate his somewhat moribund image. 

The moderators asked tough questions, often trapping the candidates in hypotheticals that will be featured in Democratic ads; the economy was not the key issue of the debate by far, and no one offered anything close to a specific plan on how to fix it.  

Pence blasts Ramaswamy at first debate

Former Vice President Mike Pence and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy square off at the first Republican presidential nomination debate, on August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Fox News)

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All of the candidates were applause-line heavy and policy light, but perhaps that is the way of politics these days, and I’m used to former President Bill Clinton who always had a four-point plan for everything.  

Probably the best lineup for the Republican Party is pretty clear – they likely would do best with DeSantis as their nominee and Scott as vice president (or vice versa). Haley would be the obvious choice for Secretary of State. Christie as attorney general.  

Ramaswamy is in the Pete Buttigieg seat and would get secretary of Transportation. Pence is in line for a special envoy position. But if there is one thing the debate made clear it is that a lot of these candidates are going to fight it out until the end and that probably is the best thing that Trump has going for him – that he can keep them divided and conquer. But this is only the beginning, not the end of this process.  

Nikki Haley speaking

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks during the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday. (Fox News)

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Trump is getting ready for his mug shot in Georgia and so that will likely be the big story of the next day or two, and so he likely didn’t lose anything by staying out of this fray. Conventional wisdom is frontrunners only lose at debates and with the fragmented support across all of these candidates, Trump remains the frontrunner for the primary.  

Post-debate the real field to challenge Trump is DeSantis, Scott, Ramaswamy and Haley, while the other four candidates are unlikely to have any chance of rising into double digits.   

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