The third presidential debate happening in Miami should have been all about the two Florida men vying for the Republican nomination. With Trump not attending and holding a rally just miles away in Hialeah, Wednesday should be Gov. Ron DeSantis’ moment to solidify himself as the alternative to the former president. But it might not be.
It’s no longer a given that DeSantis is the solid runner-up, according to recent polling. It’s Nikki Haley who’s got momentum — at least a bit — largely because of two previous debate performances that included a clear display of her foreign policy knowledge and some memorable zingers.
“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she famously told Vivek Ramaswamy. DeSantis’ performances weren’t disastrous — and he was stronger in the second one — but they weren’t enough to elevate him in voters’ eyes.
Trump far ahead
Trump’s dominance in the primary isn’t necessarily any candidates’ failure. Four indictments and accusations of trying to steal an election didn’t faze GOP voters and, in fact, made Trump even stronger. The Republican Party’s brand, as vocal as Never Trumpers might be, is still largely defined by the populism the former president brought to the forefront. That’s not to say DeSantis hasn’t make mistakes. His attempt to appeal to the hard right while trying to sell himself as more electable in a general election seems schizophrenic at best.
The governor is in his element talking to friendly audiences and shutting reporters down at news conferences, but he doesn’t shine on the debate stage. Even when he uttered one of his most-used campaign taglines — “Our country is in decline” — he sounded contrived and scripted. To his credit, he avoided big mistakes and stayed above the fray. At the second debate, in California, he said Trump was “missing in action” and landed sharper attacks against the former president.
If recent polls are correct, it’s Haley who capitalized on her performances. She’s tied with DeSantis for second place in Iowa and is ahead of him in New Hampshire, according to an average of polls by FiveThirtyEight.
Haley, a former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, is not a fire breather like DeSantis and Trump. Her political brand isn’t culture wars, so it’s expected that she has risen as an alternative for Republicans looking for a less rabid form of conservatism.
She doesn’t support abortion rights, but spoke bluntly about how unrealistic it would be to try pass a nationwide abortion ban. At a time when the Republican electorate is wary of U.S. interference in other countries, she has defended aid to Ukraine to prevent Russia from invading other European countries. DeSantis initially labeled the war a “territorial dispute” before walking it back after backlash.
If anything, Haley’s debate performances indicate that, whether you like her stances or not, she is clearer about them. DeSantis’ efforts to offer something for everyone — Trump supporters and those who want to move on from the former president — make it hard to know who DeSantis really is and what he stands for. Is he MAGA 2.0 or a fresh face for the party’s future?
Focus on Israel
DeSantis has tried to boost his commander-in-chief credentials after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel. Vocal about his support for Israel since he was a congressman, he called a special legislative session this week to target companies with ties to Iran, a Hamas backer. Expect him to talk about that at length on Wednesday. His recent endorsement by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, too, comes at a pivotal time, just two months before the country’s first caucus in that state.
But does any of this matter? In past times, a strong debate performance would have given candidates a chance to catch up with the perceived front runner. But what can overcome a more than 30-point deficit this late in the fight for the GOP nomination? Trump will be attempting to dominate the debate from Hialeah, where his popularity is strong. For DeSantis to dispel the shadow cast from across town, he would need to take on the ex-president directly. But that’s a game he just can’t win. Mudslinging is Trump’s favorite sport.
For DeSantis to make any real headway — which he must do to stay viable — he’ll have to turn himself into a political pretzel, somehow drawing a line between himself and his former mentor without alienating Trump followers. That’s a recipe that, so far, has failed. And things could get a lot worse for DeSantis if he cannot contain Haley’s threat to his struggling presidential bid.