The two winners from the first Republican presidential debate were entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Only one of them wants to be president in 2025.
To start, let me lay out my overarching thoughts on the race. DeSantis is the Republican candidate most likely to defeat President Joe Biden and implement conservative policies. I’m going to put my “analyst” hat on from here, but if you think what follows is flawed, at least you know where I’m coming from.
The breakout star of Wednesday’s debate was Ramaswamy. Of the major candidates — sorry, Asa Hutchinson — he was the least known. Not for long. He was the most Googled candidate of the evening by far. He appeared to be having the most fun, even as he received the most criticism.
Some of his answers were tremendous. He identified a two-parent home as the “ultimate privilege.” The root of today’s mental health crisis, he said, is that “people are so hungry for purpose and meaning.” His belief that “we live in a dark moment” locked “in an “internal sort of cold, cultural, civil war” is likely to resonate with younger voters.
Ramaswamy also had a couple of major stumbles. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley took him apart over his shifting positions on Israel. The crowd booed when he claimed he was the only person on stage “who isn’t bought and paid for,” so he could tell the truth about climate change. When he was flustered, he came across like a used car salesman trying to paper over flaws by talking faster.
That kind of doublespeak — and there’s lots of it with Ramaswamy — would be a problem for most campaigns. But he seems to realize he’s not going to win this primary. He’s content to raise his profile while ingratiating himself to Donald Trump. Ramaswamy is the Republican Pete Buttigieg.
If DeSantis ends up winning the nomination, this debate will be considered a turning point. He contrasted Biden’s performance with his vision for the country. While other candidates talked about issues, he pointed to accomplishing those things in Florida. He slapped down Bret Baier for misstating Florida’s crime statistics. His vignette on hearing his daughter’s heartbeat is how more Republicans need to talk about abortion.
There are areas for improvement. He should refuse to participate in “raise your hand if” questions. He did this when the moderators asked about climate change, but not subsequently. He needs a clearer answer on Ukraine.
Overall, DeSantis looked presidential. You know who else thought he did well? Trump. On Thursday morning, he posted numerous anti-DeSantis things on Truth Social. That included linking to an article on MSNBC.
Other thoughts: Trump wasn’t the center of the political conversation Wednesday night. Despite Trump’s big lead, don’t expect that to sit well with him. Mike Pence’s debate experience showed, but his campaign is an in-kind contribution to Trump. Sen. Tim Scott disappeared. Questions in a Republican primary debates should address the concerns of Republican voters, not be framed in ways that please Northeast liberals.
Most notably of all: Trump may well win, but this race is far from over.