Regarding Wednesday night’s event at the Reagan Presidential Library: it must first be established that the verbal fisticuffs represented, decidedly, the undercard in the Republican presidential race.
Still the main event: Donald Trump vs. the world. The 45th president, under assault from courts, prosecutors and persecutors on seemingly endless fronts, still commands the stage, sucks up most of the media coverage, and stands alone atop the polls.
That being said, this second GOP bout featured many similar qualities – and the same outcome – as the first. The candidates were again well-prepared – surprisingly so from the very outset with their readiness to flip questions on the autoworkers’ strike into their core economic talking points while even aiming a few zingers at Sleepy Joe.
With one notable exception – several sparrers’ seeming willingness to maintain the proverbial “blank check” for Ukraine – all seven were generally solid on the issues. And as in their first encounter, showed themselves uniformly qualified to be president.
Three entrants helped themselves in particular. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, aided by the opportunity to bat leadoff, rose from virtual invisibility with a far more spirited and focused performance. He added to his inspiring “American Dream” story and good-guy earnestness some memorable lines (Biden should be on the southern border rather than the picket line; “Build Back Broker;” Black families survived slavery, poll taxes and literacy tests, less so “Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society”).
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – comfortable, confident and mildly comedic as usual – enjoyed two of the “defining moments” debate participants dearly desire. First, looking straight into the camera, he directly tweaked the absent frontrunner as “Donald Duck” for his failure to appear. And later, landed another blow on The Donald’s ample chin in asserting that if given the choice of eliminating an on-stage competitor, he would rather vote the ex-president “off the island.”
Meanwhile, North Dakota chief executive Doug Burgum, neglected at the outset, came on strong to establish a credible case for his business-like, innovation-oriented, problem-solving approaches to everything from education to budgeting to law enforcement to electric vehicles.
Two candidates, in contrast, gave up some ground. Vivek Ramaswamy broke out in Milwaukee with his energetic, articulate and out-of-the-box expressions and sharp critiques of “bought-and-paid-for” opponents, but was unable to build on that attention-grabbing debut. Despite one nice moment – admitting to an image as a “young man in a bit of a hurry” and a “know-it-all” – the anti-woke entrepreneur/activist added little else to his now-familiar refrains about reuniting America around its core values, and spent much of his field-leading 12-plus minutes of airtime on defense, especially against former South Carolina’s former boss lady, Nikki Haley.
Who, as it happens, was the second challenger regressing from a widely hailed performance. In these parleys, participants – particularly women – must take care not to cross the fine line between strong and strident, and assertive versus annoying. The not-so-gentlelady from the Palmetto State all but obliterated it, coming across as weirdly bellicose even in otherwise well-considered asseverations on key issues, and outright boorish in continuously interrupting and attempting to drown out fellow candidates.
As for beleaguered erstwhile veep Mike Pence, two (admittedly borrowed) words suffice: “low energy.”
Which brings us to the similar outcome referenced above: the night’s winner, and by a wider margin than in the initial wrangle, was again Florida’s Ron DeSantis. The Sunshine State’s chief executive succeeded in his campaign’s priority: turning every opportunity into paeans to his splendid record at home – even three questions, on health insurance, education curricula and abortion, intended by the mostly overmatched moderators to knock him on his heels.
DeSantis made good use of a “veto pen” as a prop in promoting his fiscal record in Florida, and pointed out to applause that he would be the first president since 1988 to have served overseas.
He played peacemaker in various fracases, and took the pressure off the field in turning back the initial question on who should be “voted off the island” as “disrespectful.”
He boasted a pair of those dreamy “defining moments.” One was his triumphal – and all-too-true – pronouncement that his success in having “gotten into big fights and delivered big victories for the people of Florida” has left “the Democratic Party … in ruins” in his state.
But the evening’s climax came in a flurry of world-class counterpunching in response to a planned knockout punch on abortion. Instead of cowering, the governor seized the opportunity to tout his blowout reelection victory due to leading “with purpose and conviction.” Rejected the premise that pro-lifers were responsible for mid-term losses. Offered a full-throated defense of the pro-life position that included a quote engraved on The Gipper’s grave. And suggested that Republicans should hold Democrats accountable for their “extremism” on late-term abortion.
Then, knowing that the GOP’s foundation, not least in the all-important Hawkeye State, is its evangelical base, DeSantis probed deeply the former president’s emerging vulnerability on the issue. Not satisfied with castigating Trump for comments that “pro-life protections” (specifically, Florida’s new six-week heartbeat bill) “are somehow a terrible thing,” the Guv delivered the coup de grâce: “I want him to look into the eyes and tell people who’ve been fighting this fight for a long time.”
With more nights – and bulls-eyes – like this, the Floridian may just remain in the fight for a long time too.
Bob Maistros is a messaging and communications strategist, crisis specialist, and former political speechwriter. He can be reached at email@example.com.