A suggestion for Nikki and Ron

Tonight is the fourth Republican primary debate, featuring Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Very little has changed in the GOP primary over the past year, other than DeSantis losing some ground and Haley picking up some ground, but both candidates remain well behind Donald Trump. Tonight, and in the weeks ahead, we are likely to see DeSantis and Haley trying tear each other down, arguing that the other is a wobbly-kneed squish, a label that doesn’t accurately fit either one of them. No, these two candidates need something bold and surprising to consolidate their support . . . but it requires them heeding advice that neither campaign wants to hear.

Four Republicans will appear on stage at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa for the fourth, and conceivably final, debate of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. (There are talks for additional debates, but nothing is finalized yet.) The Iowa Republican caucus will be held January 15, 2024, just 40 days or a bit under six weeks from now. Does it feel like we’re less than six weeks away from votes being cast? Nah, I don’t feel like it either.

The debate is being hosted and televised by NewsNation, a cable network that is, er, not as well-known as Fox News Channel and the others. You can find NewsNation on Channels 191/1116 on Xfinity and channels 86/568 on Fios — the latter channels are the HD version — and the debate will be live-streamed on the NewsNation website. It will also be broadcast simultaneously in the eastern and central time zones on broadcast television network The CW. (My only wish is that we would get some sort of dramatic heartthrob moderators for that simulcast, and/or some DC superheroes. “But governor, where is this relationship going? Ambassador, you say you’re strong on national defense, but your national-security plan doesn’t even mention the threat of the Anti-Monitor!”)

Joking aside, these are probably going to be exceptionally strong moderators — Megyn Kelly, host of The Megyn Kelly Show on SiriusXM; our old friend Eliana Johnson, editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon; and Elizabeth Vargas, the anchor of NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas Reports.

Then again, the problem with these debates has rarely been the moderators, or the questions. The first few had the challenge of too many candidates, mostly long-shots, leaving too little time for each candidate. The last one, with just five candidates on stage, was worth watching, showcasing 80 percent of the candidates on stage at their best. Yes, the viewership of these debates is significantly lower than back in 2016 when Trump was on stage, but that last debate had 7.5 million viewers. How often do Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy get a chance to address an audience that large? Even if tonight’s debate has an audience about half that, how often do these candidates appear before 4 million sets of eyeballs and ears?

(Insert my “Oh, Vivek’s in this?” reaction here.)

To qualify for this debate, candidates needed to be polling at 6 percent or higher in two national polls, or at 6 percent in one state poll from one of the early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Earlier this week, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum suspended his campaign; Mike Pence and Tim Scott are increasingly distant memories. The era for the “nice guy, some interesting ideas, not going to be president anytime soon” candidate is over. By the way, Asa Hutchinson is still plugging along.

As with the previous debates, Trump will not be there; he’ll be in Hallandale Beach, Fla., attending a fundraiser for his super PAC. There is little sign that anybody in the Republican Party, either among the primary voters or the RNC, wants to punish him or penalize him one iota for skipping the debates.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that “big hitters on Wall Street are lining up to support Nikki Haley’s long-shot bid to snatch the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.” A presidential candidate would rather have that support and copious financial resources than not have that support, but Haley still faces a steep uphill climb. She’s still running third in Iowa in most polls, a distant second in New Hampshire (probably the early state best suited for her issue set and style) and a distant second in her home state of South Carolina. She and DeSantis are, so far, set to play the roles of Ted Cruz and John Kasich in a rerun of the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

The other challenge for both candidates is that they’re both solid conservatives, accomplished and experienced, and they feel like the only path ahead is to convince GOP primary voters that the other one isn’t a solid conservative, accomplished, or experienced.

When Haley attacks DeSantis, or vice versa, they tend to sound ridiculous. Haley tries to use DeSantis’s opposition to fracking in the Florida Everglades as some sort of sign he’s a tree-hugging green hippie, and DeSantis tries to make her sound like a squish on China because she welcomed a Chinese-owned fiberglass manufacturer to Richland County, S.C., in 2016. There’s not a huge gap between these two on policy, other than perhaps Ukraine funding.

I’m about to write something that neither campaign wants to hear but that they need to hear. Another six weeks of attempting to trash the other is only going to increase the already high odds that Trump is going to be the nominee. So why not skip the mutually-assured-destruction-like dynamic, fighting to be the last non-Trump candidate standing, and work out a unity ticket?

The pair would probably work well together on a ticket and in a presidency. DeSantis–Haley, or Haley–DeSantis? Work it out amongst yourselves; as Dick Cheney can tell you, the vice presidency can be an extremely powerful office if you play your cards right. If you actually want to influence federal policy and let someone else be the lightning rod getting all the criticism, the vice presidency might actually be a more appealing office.

I’m sure that neither one wants to be effectively forced into a decision about a running mate this early in the process. But right now, neither one of them is on track. They don’t need to improve their standing in the polls by a few points here or there; they need something big and dramatic and that gets people to sit up and take notice, and to reevaluate their options.

This is the one scenario where all or almost all of the DeSantis supporters would likely back Haley and vice versa — and suddenly DeSantis–Haley, or Haley–DeSantis would be within striking distance of Trump. It’s probably the best shot either of them have at winning the nomination.

If some of the recent reporting is accurate, the campaigns are starting to grasp that the status quo approach to their campaign is not going to get them where they want to go: “The governor [DeSantis] has privately acknowledged to friends and allies that Trump holds so much sway over the Republican voter base that it leaves little room for alternative candidates. The timing may not have been right for DeSantis to run, according to allies.”

What’s it going to be, DeSantis and Haley camps? A unity ticket, where you have a slim shot at winning this thing, or the same old approach that hasn’t worked for the past year?

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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