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Heel Turn

After Wednesday’s Debate, the GOP Primary Is a Three-Horse Race

For all the critiques of the GOP debates, they have done an effective job of narrowing the Republican field.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis at Wednesday night’s GOP presidential primary debate

In the late 1960s, another turbulent era in American history, jazz singer Peggy Lee had a hit with her dancing-on-the-brink rendition of “Is That All There Is?” Traditional Republican super PAC billionaires—who just want the GOP to stand for low taxes, minimal regulation, and slashing entitlements—must have had that same reaction watching Wednesday night’s debate. After dreaming of a late-entering Republican white knight like now-chastened Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to somehow slay Donald Trump, major conservative donors undoubtedly looked at the five candidates on the debate stage and lamented, “Is that all there is?”

After Wednesday’s debate, only two non-Trump contenders are still in the race: Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The other three candidates will be lucky to survive into January. 

Tim Scott, who was once regarded as a breakthrough possibility (including by me), had another pedestrian debate mostly notable for the South Carolina senator’s intense Christian religiosity: “We should stop kneeling in protest and start kneeling in prayer.” Vivek Ramaswamy worked overtime with antics so extreme (claiming, for example, that Joe Biden “is not even the president of the United States. He’s a puppet for the managerial class”) that he made the Ted Cruz of 2016 seem likable in comparison. And Chris Christie, who actually offered a spirited defense of food stamps, seemed like he had accidentally wandered onto the debate stage searching for a political party that no longer exists. 

It is fashionable to ridicule the Republican face-offs as ludicrous theater since everyone knows that Trump, that determined debate refusenik, will be the GOP nominee. But, according to my rough calculations, both Haley and DeSantis have a small, but realistic, chance of being sworn in as president in 2025. Assume that Trump has an 80 percent likelihood of being nominated (which is a little high in my book) and that the fall election is a 50-50 affair. That crude math would give both Haley and DeSantis a 5 percent chance of winning the election.

So what did we learn about Haley and DeSantis from the debate? 

In policy terms, not much was new. Both candidates underlined yet again that, as if America didn’t have enough problems, they both seemed eager to get into a war with Mexico over fentanyl. Haley said flatly, “We’ll send special operations in to take out the cartels.” And DeSantis’s tough-guy bluster seemed almost comic. “I’m telling you this,” the Florida governor declared, “if someone in the drug cartels is sneaking fentanyl across the border when I’m president, that’s going to be the last thing they do. We’re going to shoot them stone cold dead.”

Stylistically, for the third debate in a row, Haley excelled. In a weird decision by the NBC moderators, abortion (which had powered the Democrats to victory in the Virginia legislative elections) was only introduced as a topic with about 20 minutes remaining in the debate. Once again, Haley artfully fuzzed her own strong anti-abortion record, saying, “As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me.” Her implicit message to moderates and Republicans who support abortion rights is that she will do her utmost to paper over the issue if she becomes the Republican nominee. In contrast, DeSantis, who still nurtures hope of winning the evangelical vote in the Iowa caucuses, began his own abortion answer by declaring, “I stand for a culture of life.”

This was also the debate when Haley channeled her inner Sarah Palin. After Ramaswamy ridiculed Haley for her strong support of Ukraine as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels,” the former U.N. ambassador responded in unflappable fashion by saying, “I wear heels. They’re not a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.” The affinity between Haley and the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee is not accidental, since Palin campaigned for her in the 2010 South Carolina gubernatorial primary. 

DeSantis, in contrast, cannot seem to pull off being a real person on a debate stage. Discussing the drug problem, DeSantis tried, like most politicians, to humanize it:  “I was speaking to a dad who had lost a son to a fentanyl overdose.” But within seconds DeSantis implausibly portrayed that same grieving father as saying, “These elites in D.C. don’t give a damn about what’s happening in this country.” How convenient for DeSantis, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, whose very first words in the debate were, “This country is in trouble, and the elites that have put us here don’t care about you.” 

The Florida governor was also guilty of a baffling episode of political malpractice. His flailing campaign received a lift earlier in the week when he was endorsed by conservative Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who stressed that she did not believe that Trump could beat Biden. Yet during the two-hour debate, DeSantis never mentioned that he had been anointed by the governor of the first caucus state. You could bet that if Haley won the backing of New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu—which she craves—she would have ballyhooed it in every third sentence in the debate. 

Moderator Lester Holt, who deserves credit for taming the rambunctious debate audience, began by predictably asking all the candidates why they were a better choice for the Republicans than Trump. In a telling sign of their unshakeable timidity, both DeSantis and Haley launched into abbreviated versions of their stump speeches before they even deigned to mention the former president who is walloping them both in the polls. 

DeSantis did muster a few anti-Trump lines: “He said that the Republicans would get tired of winning. What we saw last night is that I’m sick of Republicans losing.” Haley was even more tentative, saying with mock bravery, “Well, I can talk about President Trump. I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time.” She then flicked at Trump adding $8 trillion to the deficit and selling out Ukraine, but it was obvious that her heart wasn’t in it. 

Haley and DeSantis knew if they squabbled with each other too much they would come across as petty and largely avoided bickering. The biggest point of contention between them was their respective attempts to woo Chinese investments as governor, since Beijing is now the embodiment of the Evil Empire for Republicans. But sorting out the truth of these conflicting claims on China involves almost as much heavy lifting as deciphering the GOP’s Hunter Biden conspiracy theories.

For all the critiques of the GOP debates, they have done an effective job of narrowing the Republican field. Now that Haley and DeSantis have been winnowed in, they both have little more than two months to prove their mettle on the true political stages—the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.