It’s very difficult to gauge these debates because the guy who is (nationally) polling above 50 percent isn’t attending them. So, on one hand, you’re getting a good debate last night on serious, substantive issues. However, the candidates aren’t taking on the frontrunner. That’s an issue. As much as we can say any of the people on that stage (except for Vivek Ramaswamy) are potentially the best choice for the adult in the room, none of them have gone face-to-face with him. That leaves voters without a proper look at one versus the other.
So, what we get instead are two candidates – Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis – vying for second place, and a distant one at that. And, because our primaries go state-by-state and are not national, there’s no clear leader between them. DeSantis has an advantage in Iowa. Haley has an advantage in New Hampshire.
No one missed Asa Hutchinson or Doug Burgum last night. Tim Scott, try though he might, is not breaking through as his campaign had hoped. Chris Christie is doing okay, but it’s hard to see a path forward. Ramaswamy hit his ceiling already and is trending back down (going after Haley’s family last night did not help – more on that shortly).
It does feel like the debate could have and should have been about the fireworks between Haley and DeSantis. But when the two sparred, it seemed half-hearted at times. In watching those two, they seemed uncomfortable launching those attacks against each other. And the attacks felt kind of lame at times. Attacking Nikki Haley over her bringing jobs to her state – something every governor strives for, no matter the source – was far from DeSantis’ most forceful commentary. Attacking DeSantis over refusing to drill for fossil fuels in the Everglades was just as ridiculous and came off as a bad look.
Both candidates understand that the other is in the way of their ambition, but both candidates did not seem to throw their all into trying to elbow their way to the top. It’s as though, halfway through the debate, they wanted to do literally anything other than address each other.
Haley, however, looked more frustrated than DeSantis did. The Florida governor kept his composure and did not get as frustrated as he did. Haley had some stumbles while speaking. She had to correct herself once, and accidentally confused Ukraine and Iran in another part about the new Axis of Evil (her underlying point was correct, but the flub took away from the moment). The only time where losing your composure was acceptable was when Ramaswamy went after her family. That was out of bounds and everyone in the room – except for Ramaswamy – knew it.
I remain unconvinced that walking over and beating the hell out of him for that would have hurt her chances in any way, but that is a different story.
DeSantis and Haley have to go after each other because each candidate has to prove that they are the best choice to replace Donald Trump in 2024. The voters will have to make that determination based on how they take each other down. But neither one of them really seems comfortable doing so. They would both much rather face off against Trump because they understand that the person they faced off against last night is not really the enemy. Just an obstacle, but one they respect.
It’s tough to watch, because both of them have amazing qualities that would be well-suited for the White House.
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