Another Republican primary debate occurs on Wednesday, and its looming question is whether Florida Governor Ron DeSantis can hang on as the second-place candidate against leader Donald Trump, the former American president.
DeSantis faces a serious challenge for runner-up in upstart businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
Trump, meanwhile, will skip this debate as he did the first one. He is far ahead in the polls, and his disinterest is a sign of his confidence that he will win the GOP nomination easily. He is almost certainly correct.
Who Cares about Second Place?
It is a curious evolution in U.S. politics that second place in a primary has taken on such importance. Normally, no one cares, but this year is different when it comes to the GOP. First, Trump has no obvious vice-presidential choice. He has disowned his first vice president, Mike Pence of Indiana. Pence is running in the primary too, but he stands no chance. There is a possibility that a strong second place showing will convince Trump to take that candidate as his veep choice.
Second, Trump is old, and his veep may play a significant role. Much of the age debate this year has focused on President Joe Biden. But Trump is only three years younger than Biden and far less physically fit. Third, most of these candidates are setting themselves up for a 2028 run. If Trump loses, the GOP race will then be wide open. But even if Trump wins, he is term-limited. So again, the 2028 race is open. Candidates like DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Nikki Haley – those with reasonable aspirations for the office – are probably already thinking beyond Trump.
What Happened to Ron DeSantis?
The obvious candidate for 2028 should be DeSantis. In fact, DeSantis was supposed to be the Trump killer of 2024. On paper, he is a strong candidate. GOP insiders, donors, and intellectuals all like him. The party’s elites have long been uncomfortable with Trump – for his criminality, boorishness, and corruption. DeSantis is a great alternative. He channels the policies that they want without the ‘Trump Show’ – the chaos, narcissism, authoritarianism, and so on.
DeSantis is a post-Trump Trumpist. He shares Trump’s taste for the culture wars – on LGBTQ issues, wokeism, the ‘liberal media,’ guns, and so on. He has a proven record on these issues in his home state, Florida. He has a better record of policy accomplishments than Trump, whose presidency was disorganized, unfocused, and corrupt. DeSantis also believes in the economic ideology of the party’s elites. DeSantis will deliver the tax and spending cuts the party’s donor class wants.
Yet DeSantis is flailing. This is one of the great mysteries of this race. Much of it seems to be a personality issue, which the rapid rise of Ramaswamy suggests. Ramaswamy came out of nowhere in the first debate using a telegenic swagger reminiscent of Trump to grab the limelight. Trump proved that GOP voters like that flashy belligerence more than lists of policy achievements, and DeSantis has really struggled to respond. He does not have Trump or Ramaswamy’s charisma, and this alone, amazingly, seems to be sinking his campaign. The debate is probably a do-or-die moment for DeSantis, and if he really flames out this year, it could imperil him in 2028.
Trump Should Practice Debating More
Hovering over all of this, of course, is Trump himself. By now it should be clear that Trump will win the GOP primary. He is still 40-50 percent ahead of DeSantis and Ramaswamy. It is hard to imagine any contender closing a gap of that magnitude in three months. The only chance for anti-Trumpers is to unify around one candidate. But the GOP field has done the opposite, fragmenting the anti-Trump voter over eight alternatives. DeSantis was supposed to be the rallying point. Instead, he has imploded.
Now Trump can coast. It is a sign of his confidence that he will skip Wednesday’s debate. But it is not a wise choice. Trump will need to campaign next year against Biden. The GOP consensus is that Biden is on the verge of senility, but that is not true. Biden has been in politics for sixty years. He is a survivor and a fighter. He will not just roll over for Trump.
Therefore Trump should attend the GOP debates. It would be an easy forum for him, and he needs the practice. Trump has never been good at facts and figures. His debate performances were often bizarre and disjointed. This is a missed opportunity.