Wednesday night’s Republican debate was full of insults, but one thing all four candidates had in common is that none of them will be the nominee for president. The debate served no purpose other than pointless entertainment, and on that score, at least, it was a better show than the previous three.
Vivek Ramaswamy stole the spotlight for most of the night, reprising the role of populist gadfly with attack after attack at “fascist” Nikki Haley and her ties to the defense industry. In an outrageous display of chutzpah, Ramaswamy held up a sign with the words “NIKKI=CORRUPT.” Ramaswamy said something no candidate has ever said on a primary stage before: the “great replacement” so-called “conspiracy theory” is true. He challenged Haley to name three provinces in Ukraine and offered to let his three-year-old show her the difference between the United States and Israel on a map. He was marked as the outsider by the petulant questioning of one particularly annoying moderator from the Washington Free Beacon, who showed an obvious preference for Haley or Ron DeSantis.
All in all, Ramaswamy did his best to fill the Trump-sized space in the room; a tall order, for certain, but core Trump fans were pleased.
Chris Christie has been a non-factor from the start of this primary, and nothing happened Wednesday night to change that. He served his purpose – to attack Trump, the presumptive frontrunner, with liberal talking points. But at this late stage in the game, Christie’s anti-Trump agenda made him, ironically, the most authentic and commanding candidate on stage. He was the only one to acknowledge the elephant in the room, that is, Trump, the man who won by not showing up.
Christie’s swipes on this score were most devastating to DeSantis, who endured a painful flogging for dancing around a simple question about Trump’s age, for what felt like an eternity.
In a show of unity by the establishment, Christie rushed to defend Haley from Vivek’s scathing attacks. Vivek fired back with the most memorable insult of the night: “Do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race.” Ouch.
Between Vivek and Christie/Haley, DeSantis stood awkwardly in the middle like a potted plant. Once again, he tried and failed to thread the needle between Trump’s movement and the anti-Trump GOP establishment represented by Haley and Christie. His attempts at being edgy were outshined by Vivek and his equivocations on Trump and foreign policy made him mincemeat for Christie.
DeSantis needed to “win” this debate, and that was evident right from the start when he came charging out the gate to attack Haley, who has steadily supplanted him in second place. But he quickly faded into the background with his usual vacillating, robotic responses. He seemed to remember the reason he was there at the very end, when he made another attempt to define himself as the conservative champion vis a vis Haley, the moderate, corporate sell-out. It was still probably DeSantis’ best performance at this point, but that isn’t saying much.
Haley, the “frontrunner” in Trump’s absence, was the focus of most attacks. She played it cool and low-key but nevertheless showed herself in the worst light: she owned up to her coziness with Boeing and the donor class, defended her call for de-anonymization online to prevent “cyberbullying,” and appeared to open the door to an amnesty for illegal immigrants who arrived before President Biden. But she is not someone Republican voters hate, and for better or for worse, she was probably the most “electable” Republican on stage, which may help her in the veepstakes.
How many more of these silly debates are there going to be? The Iowa caucus is just weeks away, and the basic dynamics of the race remain unchanged. Donald Trump will be the nominee, and sooner or later, his challengers will all be kissing the ring. Except Christie: he’s too “big” for that.