In also-ran debate, Haley comes out on top

For a couple of hours Wednesday night, it was nice to pretend the Republican Party is ready to engage in a competitive primary season that step-by-step winnows a reasonably impressive field of candidates to a single standard-bearer who can put an end to the Joe Biden presidency.

The first Republican debate was a good show, energetic, passionate and a true brawl over the issues that will motivate voters to the polls in 2024.


For nearly an hour, Donald Trump’s name was barely mentioned. It was nearly possible to forget about the former president.

However, a check of X, formerly known as Twitter, where a recorded interview of Trump by podcaster Tucker Carlson, airing simultaneously with the debate on Carlson’s former Fox Network, burst the bubble. The Carlson-Trump sideshow was averaging 75 million impressions.

Nothing happened on the debate stage in Milwaukee to change the reality that the GOP race is still all about Trump.

But since there was a debate, the temptation to treat it as if it mattered is irresistible. And who knows, there’s a possibility Republican voters will come to the realization that, as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said, “Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”

Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, was the night’s clear winner. She was forceful, informed and in command. On the scale of presidential gravitas, Haley scored the highest among the eight debaters.

At the bottom was young entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, who has been surging in the polls on the strength of vapid sound bites that touch on every conservative talking point.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nailed Ramaswamy, whose positions were as skinny as his suit, as the “ChatGPT candidate” — a perfect description. He was as annoying as a gnat.

On Trump, the candidates were inexcusably timid, except for Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, both of whom were unequivocal in calling out the former president’s moral and ethical shortcomings.

Democrats will assure abortion is the motivating issue in 2024, and again Haley came out on top on that issue, speaking to the constituency Republicans need to win back — women.

She advocated a compromise that would ban late term abortions but allow states to keep the procedure legal.

Former Vice President Mike Pence pounced on that, declaring Republicans must put principle on abortion ahead of winning elections.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who signed a heartbeat bill into law, declared his state the most pro-life in the country. If his state had a few million more people, he might be a dark horse for vice president.

It was disappointing to watch South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott struggle to find a lane. He’s a bright guy, but proved himself not ready for prime time.

Now, the biggest loser. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did nothing to reverse his slide. He’s got a great record in Florida, but he presented as shrill and perpetually angry.

Again, this very likely is a moot exercise.

I’d be shocked if polls show Trump lost ground for not being in Milwaukee. But it was therapeutic to live briefly in a make-believe world in which the Republican Party had moved beyond Trump.

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