Five GOP candidates not named Trump debated Wednesday night, a two-hour mostly restrained and serious affair. Very little of the madcap free-for-all that made the previous debates look more like Wrestlemania. And to NBC News’ credit … and to widespread surprise … the moderators generally asked responsible questions, rather than liberal talking points and traps.
Vivek Attacks the Media and RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel … Gets Called “Scum”
With one notable exception, the candidates were fairly respectful of each other. The sharpest and most effective attack, was actually Vivek Ramaswamey’s fierce opening salvo against RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel that turned into a take-down of NBC News and moderator Kristen Welker herself for pushing Trump Russia Collusion and other anti-Trump hoaxes. A feel-good moment for the base.
I’m sick and tired of this Republican Establishment that has made us a party of losers. Where is the accountability for years of losing: 2018, 2020, 2022 and now last night? I’m calling on @GOPChairwoman to resign tonight. pic.twitter.com/8hxVqWGlwL
— Vivek Ramaswamy (@VivekGRamaswamy) November 9, 2023
While Ramaswamy again proved a sharp, creative thinker, he also returned to the distasteful attacks of the first debate. The line that quickly went viral:
“Do you want a leader from a different generation who is going to put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels, in which case we’ve got two of ’em on stage tonight.”
He’s referring, of course, to the hawkish Nikki Haley and the controversy over whether Ron DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. (Hint for Vivek: A line like that needs to be done with wit, not a whip.)
To her credit, Haley swatted the line back in Ramaswamy’s face like Serena Williams. “They’re 5-inch heels and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them … I wear high heels, not for a fashion statement, but for ammunition.”
And later, when Ramaswamy threw a low — and useless — blow by bringing Haley’s daughter into a debate over TikTok, Haley snapped “Keep my daughter out of your voice!” and was heard to utter, “You’re just scum.”
Cross Vivek off Nikki’s VP shortlist.
Nikki and Ron
The two main contenders for the Not Trump position in the race, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis had a couple sharp exchanges. Haley went after DeSantis, accusing him of trying to draw Chinese business to Florida and accusing him of being against fracking. DeSantis made Haley look a bit silly by noting he wanted only to ban fracking in the fragile Florida Everglades.
On policy, Haley kept pushing her foreign policy bona fides, pushing for the Ukraine war, and telling those American students protesting against Israel, “Hamas would kill you too!”
Nikki Haley on pro-Palestinian college protestors “Hamas would kill you too!”
— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) November 9, 2023
DeSantis stressed his toughness and effectiveness at getting things done. “I’ll take the hit,” he declared. He also disagreed with Haley on Ukraine, arguing “We need to bring this war to an end.”
While their rivalry is increasing as the field narrows, their battles seemed normal political jousting rather than bloodletting. In tandem, last night made it easier to imagine a DeSantis-Haley ticket or a Haley-DeSantis ticket, should something happen to front-runner Donald Trump.
And What of Trump?
When it came to Trump, the night was mostly, and oddly, devoid of mention of the front-runner.
Haley argued that Trump was the right choice in 2016, but not for 2024. DeSantis ripped Trump for not getting Mexico to pay for the wall, and again declared Trump is not the same man he was in 2016. A line he won’t get away with in an actual debate with Trump.
Chris Christie, who has spent the whole campaign ripping Trump harder than he does Joe Biden, declared “Anybody who is going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.”
Not a peep from the former prosecutor on why Trump is in court. No pushback on the Biden Administration’s use of the DOJ and eager Soros-funded prosecutors to bring cases against Trump simply to hamper his 2024 run.
As for the man himself, Donald Trump held a rally Wednesday night in Miami’s heavily Cuban-American suburb of Hialeah. There Trump earned the endorsement of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and saw five Florida lawmakers switch their support from DeSantis.
Oh, and he got a street named after him. Hialeah Mayor Esteban “Steve” Bavo announced his intent to name a road after the former president, even bringing along the sign for “President Donald Trump Avenue.”
Chris Christie and Tim Scott
Sen. Tim Scott came out of the gate aiming for the evangelical vote, insisting in his opening statement that America must return to it Judeo-Christian values, and recited Reagan’s and Lincoln’s use of Scripture. Scott ended up with the most speaking time, according to NBC News. The #2 candidate in the race, DeSantis had the least speaking time.
Meanwhile, compared to his non-stop Trump slamming and one-liner filled earlier performances, Chris Christie was Mr. Soft and Serious Wednesday night. Clearly his strategy was to present himself as a somber leader. Not a man only auditioning to host a Donald Trump comedy roast and land a contributor gig on MSNBC.
The candidate he was last night could have challenged Haley and DeSantis for the contender spot.
In light of how abortion was used by Democrats to secure wins Tuesday night, the candidate’s views on how the GOP should move forward on the issue is a crucial one. All, of course, pushed their pro-life credentials. Moderator Kirsten Welken pressed them on a federal abortion ban (in part to nationalize the Tuesday message of “Republicans want to kill women with their pro-life laws.”) Haley again pressed her pragmatic position that Republicans will never reach the 60-vote threshold in the Senate that would be necessary for any meaningful abortion limits.
Rival DeSantis offered his strongest moment of the night, one worth hearing: “We’re better off when everybody counts, we’re better off when we promote a culture of life.”
.@RonDeSantis on abortion:
“We’re better off when everybody counts. We’re better off when we can promote a culture of life.” pic.twitter.com/pwEHYv9SCb
— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) November 9, 2023
Did the Debate Move the Needle?
While Vivek dominated the social media with his hits on Haley, the night did little more than further solidify that the race to be the Not Trump candidate — or, if you prefer, Trump’s Emergency Back-Up — is down to Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. Especially with Tuesday night’s results in Virginia throwing cold water on the idea that Gov. Glenn Younkin will jump in the race.
While the debate helped the main candidates on stage, and Trump will have to reckon with them at some point, did the night do Trump any damage? Only if he dropped that street sign on his foot.
Finally, the night also showed you can have a political debate that doesn’t turn into an episode of Jerry Springer. Even when one candidate calls another one “just scum.”
Al Perrotta is the Managing Editor of The Stream, co-author, with John Zmirak, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and co-author of the counter-terrorism memoir Hostile Intent: Protecting Yourself Against Terrorism.