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The Big Winner of the First GOP Debate: Donald Trump
Some candidates had a good night. Others didn't. But Donald Trump came out on top.
Who was the big winner in Wednesday’s first GOP presidential debate? According to The Cooke Political Report’s Amy Walter, it was Donald Trump. She illustrated why in just a few short paragraphs:
How can the candidate who didn’t even show up be the winner of a debate?
First, the fact that venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy, one of former President Donald Trump’s strongest defenders, got the most attention at the Wednesday night event is a huge help to Trump. Had this debate been centered around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and had DeSantis risen to that challenge, his struggling candidacy may have been given new life. Instead, all of the talk for the next few days will be about Ramaswamy.
Then there’s the fact that all but two candidates on that stage — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — said they would support Trump even if he were ultimately convicted of a crime. If Trump’s opponents don’t think that being convicted is disqualifying, why should any GOP voter?
She’s absolutely right.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into the debate. I knew there’d be eight candidates on stage, I knew Trump wasn’t going to be one of them, and I was confident Chris Christie would bring the hammer down on the M.I.A. former president… but that was about it. The best I could hope for were some pleasant surprises, and a few actually came.
It was good to see Nikki Haley start to resemble a candidate running for president, and not vice president. She was not only strong on abortion and Ukraine (taking Vivek Ramaswamy to the woodshed on the latter), but said some important things we haven’t heard of much from the candidates, including how Trump added nearly $8 trillion to our national debt, and — to my shock — that the GOP Party can’t defeat Biden with Trump as its nominee.
A surprisingly fiery Mike Pence too performed better than many expected, though his pugilist skills felt a bit clumsy. Doug Burgum took a bold states-rights position on abortion that actually garnished strong applause. Asa Hutchinson went as far as to appropriately call January 6 an “insurrection,” for which he deserves immense credit (though he’ll receive virtually none from the base). Chris Christie, as expected, was strong and told all kinds of blunt, unpopular truths, but he was less focused on Trump than his pre-debate rhetoric would have suggested. Ron DeSantis, as Walters said, didn’t do himself any favors. And while Tim Scott seems like a genuinely nice guy, he faded into the background and was nearly forgotten about.
I was not a fan of a number of the questions, including the moderators using a viral song as some kind of litmus test, and that silly question about UFOs. With eight people on stage and a lot of available topics, that time could have been far better used. The same goes for that lengthy (and cheesy) intro.
But I think all of these things took a backseat to what Walters observed.
Vivek Ramaswamy drew the most attention by flooding the stage with profound demagoguery, nonsensical charges of corruption, shameless projection, and pornographic levels of Trump-sycophancy. If the goal isn’t to win the presidency, but suck the wind out of serious candidates’ efforts to dethrone Trump, driving everyone nuts was absolutely brilliant maneuvering.
And with six of the eight challengers saying that not even criminal convictions would keep them from supporting a guy for president who tried to overturn U.S. democracy, caused a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, and denied our country of its peaceful transfer of power, the case for why that guy — the heavy front-runner — shouldn’t be the nominee was made astoundingly (and needlessly) weak.
So yeah… Congratulations, Donald Trump, on winning the first debate. A few more like that and you’ll have the nomination all wrapped up.