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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Grading the GOP candidates in first presidential debate

    Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks as businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., listen during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
    Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand at their podiums during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

    Donald Trump did America and his Republican opponents a big favor when he opted out of the GOP presidential debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

    Instead of enabling Trump to suck the life out of the arena, the two-hour debate gave eight other qualifying candidates a chance to introduce themselves to millions of Americans, explain how they'd lead in the White House, and how they'd beat incumbent Democrat Joe Biden in the 2024 election to get there.

    With eight candidates on the stage, the event was predictably chaotic at times. Trump's presence would have reduced it to a two-hour food fight.

    There was no clear winner, but some did better than others, putting them in one of three tiers - top, middle and bottom once the dust settled. Here's how they did:

    Top tier:

    Vivek Ramaswamy: The wealthy 38-year-old entrepreneur and son of Indian immigrants has been surging in recent polls, energizing voters with his staunch conservative positions, ready smile and articulate intellect. Hyping instead of hiding from his status as the youngest candidate and only political outsider in the race, he usually kept his cool during the debate despite being targeted at various points by Chris Christie, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley. The low point of his performance was promising to pardon Trump if the former president is convicted on any of the dozens of federal criminal charges he's facing.

    Nikki Haley: The former US Ambassador to the United Nations, South Carolina governor, and daughter of Indian immigrants had some of the best lines of the evening and improved her standing with a solid overall performance. Vowing to keep transgender girls out of girls' sports, she said: "I am going to fight for girls all day long because strong girls become strong women, and strong women become strong leaders." Relying on her diplomatic experience, she scolded Ramaswamy for his opposition to increased funding for Ukraine and warned he would allow Communist China to overtake Taiwan. She urged other pro-life Republicans to "stop demonizing" the abortion issue and seek national consensus. Her low point was shouting over Ramaswamy while he defended himself against her criticism.

    Ron DeSantis: The second-term Florida governor seemed a little tight at the debate's outset, but finished strong, citing his state's rapid growth, low crime, and noting that he kept schools and businesses open throughout the pandemic. Despite leading the other debaters in polls, his campaign is off to a slow start, and he trails Trump by 40 percent in some surveys. He didn't have the break-through moment some thought he needed to close that gap. He vowed to follow through on campaign promises such as using military action against Mexican drug cartels who send tons of lethal fentanyl across America's southern border. He signed legislation in Florida that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy but had his low point when he dodged a question about whether he'd try to enact a similar restriction at the national level.

    Middle Tier

    Tim Scott: The second-term U.S. Senator from South Carolina has an inspiring story to tell, coming from a poor, single-parent household to being the first Black Republican to serve in the US Senate. He promised he would finish the wall along the southern border and "break the backs of the teachers' unions" to implement school choice. He has portrayed himself as the fulfillment of the American Dream and refuses to criticize other GOP candidates. That left him silent on the sidelines during most of the debate's most spirited exchanges.

    Chris Christie: The former New Jersey governor touted his two election victories in a Democratic state, taking on teachers' unions, state employees and Democratic majorities in his state's legislature. To his credit, Christie has been the only candidate to regularly criticize Trump, saying his "conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States." He performed well enough in the debate, but his problem Wednesday night was that Trump wasn't there to mix it up with him.

    Bottom tier

    Mike Pence: The former vice president basked in his Jan. 6, 2021, defiance of Trump who wanted him to block certification of Biden's election victory, eliciting acknowledgement from the other debaters that he had done the right thing that day. Pence is a good, decent, God-fearing man, but he came off as stiff, long-winded, and self-righteous, especially when he tried to belittle the 38-year-old Ramaswamy, a crowd favorite, as a "rookie." His low point came when his persistent interrupting drew a rebuke from Fox News co-anchor Brett Baier.

    Doug Burgum: The two-term governor of North Dakota, who made his fortune in the software industry, touted himself as "a pro-life candidate from a pro-life state." He said he signed legislation barring transgender women and girls from participating in women's sports but said the law hasn't even been tested yet in his state. He accumulated a sufficient number of donors to qualify for the debate by giving gift cards to anyone who donated $1 to his campaign. He may not make the cut for a second debate, but even if he does, his long-shot candidacy is stuck in low single digits.

    Asa Hutchinson: Having completed his second term as Arkansas governor, the former U.S. Attorney and administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration has strong credentials, but little support. It's unlikely his relatively quiet debate performance will lift his campaign. Like Burgum, he'll have trouble qualifying for the next debate and doesn't have the same personal wealth to boost himself.

    Overall, the debate displayed the candidates' and the Republican Party's strengths and exposed their weaknesses.

    Collectively, the debaters favor a closed southern border, energy independence, controlled spending, school choice, and tougher prosecution for violent criminals. Along with promises to curb inflation that has dogged the Biden presidency, those are all popular positions among most voters.

    While popular with the GOP base, however, they will lose votes with promises to restrict abortion and to endorse Trump if he is the nominee - even if he has been convicted on state and/or federal criminal charges.

    One thing is clear, however: any one of the eight would outshine Biden in a head-to-head debate ... if Biden's handlers even let him participate in one next year, which is questionable.

    Stay tuned.

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