Donald Trump biggest winner from third GOP presidential debate

A slimmed-down field of GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage in Miami on Wednesday for a third primary debate.

Only five people qualified for the clash: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.

The debate was again defined by the absence of former President Trump, who instead held his own rally in nearby Hialeah. There, he was endorsed by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), who first came to national prominence as Trump’s White House press secretary

Here are the winners and losers from the night.


Donald Trump

Trump’s decision to avoid the debates, like it or not, has been a strategic success.

The former president holds an enormous lead in the polls. In the national polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight, Trump leads the second-placed DeSantis by 43 points. Even in Iowa, a state Trump lost in 2016 and where his rivals think he is most vulnerable, he has a 28-point lead.

By avoiding the debates, Trump removes the risk that any of his rivals can land a serious blow on him — and there is the added advantage that they tend to squabble with each other.

The only danger for Trump is some kind of seismic moment arising that could fundamentally alter the race.

That didn’t happen Wednesday.

I hate to have to state the obvious, but the reality is that the only real takeaway from the Miami debate is that there is still not a genuine contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

We can discuss who won and who lost, but the bottom line is that debates are not meaningful if they’re merely exhibition sparring contests. They only matter if they change the trajectory of the race. With Donald Trump up over 40 points nationally and 30 points in early primary states, it would have taken something major for anything to truly shake up the dynamic, and nothing remotely major occurred. If Haley or Governor Ron DeSantis gain a few points following the debate, Trump will still have a commanding lead just over two months before actual voting starts.

Once again, Trump benefitted from his decision to ditch the debates by depriving them of meaning and denying opponents the chance to create moments that could have shaken up the race. There has been no downside for him, because rivals barely bring up his absence, and voters do not punish him for ducking.

Crazy things have happened in politics, so it’s foolhardy to say that it’s impossible for him to lose. But at this moment it’s difficult to conceive of a set of circumstances that could occur that would result in somebody other than Trump emerging as the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.


Nikki Haley

“You’re just scum.”

It is an unlikely line with which to win a debate, but it was easily the most memorable moment from Wednesday night — and one that will dominate TV news coverage in the aftermath.

It was uttered by Haley after Ramaswamy — for whom she has evident disdain — went after her on the specious basis that Haley’s daughter uses TikTok even as the candidate inveighs against its dangers.

It was a disastrous misjudgment from Ramaswamy and Haley’s scornful response will surely have resonated with many viewers, especially parents.

In general, Haley showed herself — again —to be the most accomplished debater in the field. Her strong performances in the previous two encounters have been catalysts to lift her in the polls. Now, after three debates, she is 3-0.

Wednesday’s debate was the first since an Oct. 7 Hamas attack killed around 1,400 Israelis, starting a new and gruesome phase of the decades-long conflict.

Much of the opening stretches of the debate were devoted to foreign affairs — Ukraine as well as Israel — which plays to Haley’s strengths.

Later, she was also fluent and poised on inflation, social security reform and, particularly, abortion.

Her nuanced position on abortion is also looking electorally perceptive in the wake of GOP losses in off-year elections on Tuesday. Those defeats were driven in part by voter resistance to hardline anti-abortion positions. 

Haley was targeted at times by DeSantis as well as Ramaswamy but she was never damaged. 

The attacks themselves underlined that the former South Carolina governor, rising in the polls, is the Trump-alternative most feared by the rest of the field.

Ron DeSantis

DeSantis has not had a happy campaign. For months he drifted downward in the polls, while supporters caviled about the lack of a clear message and, on one occasion, he had to lay off staff.

He did not have any single transformative moment on Wednesday, but it was his best debate performance so far.

He voiced the vigorous backing of Israel that many Republican voters seem to crave while being markedly more skeptical of continued aid to Ukraine.

On domestic issues, he held his own in exchanges about the fentanyl crisis and other topics.

Above all, DeSantis was not a bystander at this debate, as he was in previous clashes.

It wasn’t a game-changer but it was good enough for the Florida governor in his home state.

NBC News and its moderators

The debate was relatively orderly and substantive, thanks in part to nimble moderation from Lester Holt and Kristen Welker, both of NBC News.

One interesting gambit was to not let every candidate who was mentioned by a rival respond instantly. In theory, that sounds risky. In practice, it allowed for more actual debating while cutting down, a bit, on performative snideness.

Welker even took an anti-media tirade from Ramaswamy in stride early on.

The result was a debate that served voters well on topics as disparate as Ukraine, the addiction crisis and abortion.


Chris Christie

Gauging a Christie performance in this year’s primary is always difficult because of the strange fundamental dynamics. 

He’s a former governor of a large, blue state and someone who possesses obvious political skills. 

Yet, he also has a vanishingly small chance of becoming the nominee because he is the most vigorously anti-Trump candidate in a party whose activist base remains loyal to the former president.

Christie put in another solid debate performance Wednesday, where he talked about everything from a proposed ban on TikTok to the need to maintain a robust fleet of nuclear submarines as a deterrent to China.

He also took fewer swings at Trump, which helped him avoid getting drowned out by boos as has happened at other points during his campaign.

The bottom line, though, is none of it is likely to do him much good in the race for the nomination.


Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy’s two most memorable moments of the night were both bad ones for him.

The attack on Haley’s daughter was the worst of all, playing into the existing negative perceptions of the businessman as an obnoxious and sometimes-nasty opportunist. 

The misstep also seemed virtually guaranteed to earn the enmity of the suburban women voters whom the GOP badly needs to win.

Ramaswamy’s other big bad moment came when he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy a “Nazi.”

There are plenty of GOP voters who are reluctant to keep sending money to Ukraine at the same cadence as before. But even many of them may recoil at such a label being affixed to a Jewish man leading his nation’s resistance to Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion.

Ramaswamy seeks, and gets, a lot of attention for a man who has never held any office and is polling at about five percent nationally.

On Wednesday, his troll-like approach finally went too far.

Tim Scott

Scott has so far failed to come close to meeting the high hopes his supporters had when he entered the race in May.

It’s not that Scott has ever made huge gaffes. He’s just never sparked excitement or shown much sign of traction.

His third debate performance was as inoffensive but low-wattage as the previous two.

Scott came to the stage badly needing to make an impact. 

He didn’t, and the murmurs that he should consider exiting the race will only grow louder.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post