Callista and I watched the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Fox News with great interest. The debate stage brought back memories of the many debates we participated in when running for President in 2012.
Let me start by saying I thought Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum did a good, solid job of moderating the debate. I was concerned that too much of the program would be taken up with questions about President Donald Trump. They showed real discipline in having only one section on President Trump and focusing the rest of the debate on other issues first.
There were a couple of moments when it was clear the candidates were running away with the debate and Baier and MacCallum were really challenged to get the stage and pacing back under control. They did a great job.
While it got a bit rowdy at times, I thought it was a good sign that the candidates were engaged and energized. In the end, the debate is about the candidates—not the moderators.
There were two big winners last night.
First, President Donald Trump won by drawing an enormous audience to his interview with Tucker Carlson. He avoided being the immediate target of eight other people (which he would have been if he had been on stage). He was also helped by Vivek Ramaswamy emerging as a standout debater. Ramaswamy’s success guarantees that most of the candidates will have to focus effort on stopping his momentum. That will be time and effort they will not be able to focus on defeating Trump.
Second, Ramaswamy won because he was attractive, interesting, and just plain different from the traditional politicians on the stage. Some people found him too smooth. A friend wrote me, “he’s a bit like a preacher with beautiful flowery language. But the real issue is how he accomplishes much of what he says. He does not acknowledge the brick wall that is our government bureaucracy.”
Ramaswamy will now face two challenges. In future debates, his opponents will come armed with opposition research and will be much tougher on him about his positions—including things he has said in the past. There will be a definite effort to put him on defense and start shrinking him as a potential nominee.
Furthermore, now that he has attracted attention, he must develop a set of specific proposals which show that he is serious, understands government (including the legislative branch), and can implement as well as grandstand. Voters must move him from interesting to believable. At the presidential level, that is a big jump.
There were other candidates who also performed well and could see increased support.
Vice President Mike Pence represented himself well as a solid, accomplished conservative. Clearly, he has the most experience of anyone on the debate stage.
Ambassador Nikki Haley was aggressive, tough, and knowledgeable. She came out of the debate having impressed independents in particular with her intelligence and firmness. She could emerge as a serious contender with a few more performances like last night.
It is a little hard to understand why Governor Doug Burgum and former Governor Asa Hutchison were on the stage. Of course, this is a free country and I believe in everyone’s right to pursue happiness—but neither contributed much last night.
Governor Ron DeSantis had a good enough evening to keep his candidacy alive. In some ways, he was the most in control and prepared person on the stage. His willingness to challenge the moderators was to his benefit. He has a compelling biography. He served in Iraq as a U.S. Navy JAG officer. He worked his way up and became an astonishingly popular governor of our third largest state. (It is interesting how many of the Republican candidates represent the triumph of the work ethic). If President Trump was not so dominant, Governor DeSantis would almost certainly be the frontrunner, and he showed last night why he has so many supporters.
Governor Chris Christie performed much better than I thought he would. He looked good and had a good story to tell on fighting crime and reforming a blue state. However, he lost ground every time he got in a direct fight with one of the other candidates.
Finally, Senator Tim Scott’s depth of religious commitment and common decency served him well in terms of likability. However, it may or may not have advanced his cause as a candidate. He is a wonderfully positive person, but his delivery was too calm for the tough issues facing Americans.
If there was a debate loser, it was President Joe Biden. Every candidate on stage clearly articulated how bad the Biden White House has been for this country—and how badly we need a course correction. This was an excellent debate and a good sign for Republicans nationally.
On to the next debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.