It was a different scene in Florida for the third Republican presidential primary debate, as the field of candidates has shrunk from eight in the first debate to five now.
Donald Trump was still the elephant in the room, or not in the room, as the case may be. The first question was about the former president and reflected more of the media’s obsession with him than anything else.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) set the tone with his first answer, ignoring the question about Trump and instead pointing out the former president’s refusal to debate or seriously campaign for the Republican nomination.
Nikki Haley followed DeSantis’s lead by urging voters to move past Trump, talking about issues and not absent people.
Vivek Ramaswamy tried the populist route, saying the Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel needed to resign, and that the moderators of the debate should have been Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk, not two NBC News employees and a talk radio host. The crowd loved it — calling out liberal media always plays well with Republicans. But it also rang hallow. Twitter is not real life, nor is it the most efficient way to reach Republican primary voters.
Chris Christie did what he does — he took swipes at Trump.
And Sen. Tim Scott….was there. Honestly, that’s the best I can say about the senator from South Carolina. There isn’t anyone I know who doesn’t rave about what a nice guy Scott is, and he has a wildly inspiring personal story. This makes the fact that he is such a dull and uninspiring candidate all the more shocking.
Everyone expressed support for Israel, showing that Democrats are the only party equivocating over America’s partnership with the Jewish state. It is cheap and easy to offer tough talk against terrorism, and it always plays well. This only makes the Democrats’ Hamlet act over Hamas more puzzling.
As for swipes by candidates against each other on the stage, there was plenty of criticism of Trump. Since he hadn’t bothered to show up, tearing into him was easy and free.
As far as on-stage combat goes, Ramaswamy did take a shot at Haley about her joining the board of Boeing, implying that she was bought and paid for. But it didn’t really land.
Vivek, who was seen as a contender after his performance in the first debate, slipped back into the lower tier after his weaker second debate performance. Ramaswamy’s slip in the polls would have ended most campaigns. But he’s a very wealthy man who can afford to keep himself afloat. There’s no reason to think he’ll drop out, no matter how far his numbers slide.
Haley is an impressive candidate, cool under pressure. She speaks with confidence, sometimes with a dash of humor. But she seems a little bit canned sometimes. It’s not something she can’t overcome, but it must be something she can’t shake, or else she wouldn’t still be doing it. Maybe she’s over-prepared. Maybe it’s over-rehearsed. Or maybe it’s just how she comes off sometimes. Whatever it is, it’s a little off-putting.
Scott was hurt by the fact that he seemingly always went last or next to last. No matter what he said, some version of it had already been said, making him seem unoriginal. It’s unfair, untrue, and completely beyond his control, but that doesn’t make it any less the case.
Everyone would stand up to China. All candidates will save Social Security. There were flare-ups, where one candidate attacked another, but they were fleeting and forgettable.
Surprisingly, the moderators did a good job. While there were questions about Donald Trump, they didn’t linger on him for too long. They held candidates to their allotted time, which was expanded to a minute and a half, because there were fewer opportunities to speak. Only Ramaswamy made a habit of talking after his time expired. Otherwise, the answers were pretty much on time, even when they weren’t on topic.
With no knock-out blows, or even noses bloodied, the winner was DeSantis. Of the candidates sufficiently respectful of voters to speak with them and campaign for their support, he won.
That means that nothing much changed. Haley is consistent, so people who like her will still like her. She did just fine, but she might be viewed as too closely tied to the establishment to break out.
Christie doesn’t seem to be running for the top of the ticket. Maybe he wants a cabinet post, and in that respect he demonstrated that he’d be an effective campaign surrogate.
Ramaswamy seems to confuse belligerent insistence with persuasion. A cabinet position might be waiting for him, but he’ll need to learn a little humility to get confirmed by a Senate controlled by either party.
Scott is, well, Tim Scott. Strong this summer, he has faded and is fading. He barely qualified for the stage this time, and baring something dramatic, he will likely miss the next debate if the standards are raised again.
Overall, it was a much more serious question and answer session than we’ve had before, which was nice.
Ultimately, there was one actual loser. NBC hosted this debate, which opened the field up to an audience of people who are less likely to see a Republican debate on Fox News. While the audience may be smaller than the others, it was likely different. Donald Trump forfeited the chance to address voters who are not already knee-jerk loyalists. Every one of his serious opponents took full advantage of the opportunity.
His absence made everyone else more of a winner than he was, which makes him the biggest loser of the night.
Derek Hunter is host of the Derek Hunter Podcast and a former staffer for the late Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).