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The Hill
The Hill
30 Sep 2023
Aaron Kall, opinion contributor

NextImg:The GOP’s Trump-less debates ignore the real elephant in the room

The second Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, Calif., presented a stark contrast to the inaugural one in Milwaukee a month ago. At the same time, there were far too many unpopular similarities.  

Moderators Dana Perino and Stuart Varney had never moderated a presidential debate, and it showed. 

Despite former President Trump’s formidable lead in national and early state voting, he wasn’t the focus of candidate questions until the evening’s closing minutes. The constant interruptions and participants talking over each other were reminiscent of the first presidential debate in Cleveland in 2020, which was so widely panned that it sparked discussions of potential format changes. Important issues such as abortion and Ukraine didn’t receive much attention despite being front and center in the campaign and country.

Opportunities for appropriate follow-up questions went by the wayside and the closing attempt to turn a political debate into “Survivor” by asking which candidate should be “voted off the island” was quickly dismissed. 

The in-person audience ended up being about a tenth the size and much less raucous than the Milwaukee debate’s crowd. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) seemed to be in front of more supporters this time around, while an absent Trump enjoyed most of the support during the first debate. 

The e seven candidates tried their best to make personal comparisons to the ever-popular President Reagan by invoking his words and governing philosophy. It remains a bit early to tell if such a strategy will prove even mildly successful as the candidates return to the campaign trail.

Nikki Haley, DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy all delivered solid performances in Milwaukee, but have been unsuccessful in closing the large polling gap with Trump. Most of the candidates realized this time that even if Trump wasn’t physically present on the stage, they still needed to make him a much larger part of the experience or they have no hope of winning the race. 

Chris Christie did not have the best overall night but did an excellent job of including Trump in several responses. He went so far as to directly address him through the camera and criticize his absence and border wall construction. The “Donald Duck” nickname zinger did fall flat and is unlikely to pick up traction anytime soon. 

DeSantis described Trump as missing in action and criticized him over hot-button issues like abortion and federal spending. Haley attacked Trump’s China policy but focused most of her ire on Ramaswamy and DeSantis. She already served in the Trump administration as United Nations ambassador and may be holding back a bit, given the potential for Cabinet or vice presidential considerations

As the night progressed, the candidates on the stage, unfortunately, reverted to the familiar position of attacking each other, which Trump no doubt took glee in watching.

DeSantis and Haley stood out the most. Despite again being in the center of the stage, DeSantis largely emerged from another debate unscathed. He was again able to discuss his strong 2022 reelection victory in Florida, which happened while Republicans struggled nationally. He made favorable comparisons to Reagan on abortion and again demonstrated real leadership on the stage by shutting down Perino’s silly Survivor question. During the first debate, DeSantis also refused to answer a question asking candidates to raise their hands if they believe in climate change. He always tries to be the adult in the room. 

Haley telling Ramaswamy “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber” has the potential to become the debate’s viral moment that gets a life of its own. After struggling to defend moderate positions on abortion and climate change during the Milwaukee debate she, fortunately, didn’t have to answer again in Simi Valley. Haley got the better of exchanges with DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who was much improved and engaging after a plodding early effort. 

Ramaswamy digressed the most in the second debate by continuing to be the major punching bag for most of the other candidates and wanting to operate under a different set of rules from Milwaukee when attacking his fellow candidates and also calling for “unity.” Gov. Doug Burgum (R-N.D.) did himself no favors by unwisely sparing with moderators over his amount of airtime, a move that resulted in threats to have his microphone cut off.

The quality of various candidate debate performances could be moot if nothing fundamentally changes in the trajectory of the Republican primary. Everyone needs Trump to rejoin the debates so they can do their best to directly knock him off the frontrunner perch or hope the 77-year-old shows signs of struggle and stamina that have recently surrounded President Biden.

Despite the Republican National Committee’s accommodating efforts to move the third debate from Alabama to Florida in hopes the closer proximity to Mar-a-Lago would encourage Trump to participate, his campaign has already poured cold water over this idea. 

There are about five weeks until the next debate and the race remains stuck in idle absent some major unforeseen event or Trump making the surprising decision to return to the arena due to shame or envy. Nothing that happened in Simi Valley will do anything to change this hard reality.

Aaron Kall is the Lee H. Hess director of debate at The University of Michigan and editor/co-author of “Debating The Donald”