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Political observers: No clear rival for Donald Trump emerges following first GOP debate

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum take part in the first Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign in Milwaukee Aug. 23, 2023. (OSV News photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Out of the eight Republican candidates participating in the Republican National Committee’s first debate of their party’s presidential primary process in Milwaukee, none of them established themselves as a key rival to their party’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, who did not participate, experts told OSV News.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy¬†and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott all participated in their party’s first debate Aug. 23, but none had a clear breakout moment that could have helped solidify them as a clear rival to Trump.

Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame who critically observes the modern American presidency, told OSV News that “despite the many indictments and though it’s early in the election cycle, Donald Trump has a commanding lead to be the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nominee.”

“Wednesday night’s debate didn’t establish any other candidate as an identifiable or dominant potential challenger to the former president,” Schmuhl said.

John White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, concurred, telling OSV News that it was “striking” that the topic of Trump and his criminal indictments wasn’t raised until about an hour into the debate.

DeSantis, once viewed as Trump’s main rival in the contest, “performed very poorly,” at the debate, White said.

“Scott was missing in action,” he continued. “Same for Bergam and Hutchinson. Haley, Pence, and Christie did well. Ramaswarmy appealed to the Trump crowd but is no rival to Trump.”

Schmuhl also suggested Scott, who has rising likability ratings, missed his moment to stand out.

“After receiving strongly positive coverage for his campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Tim Scott seemed positioned to break away from the other Republican competitors,” he said. “That didn’t happen during the debate.”

One notable element of the debate was how Ramaswamy was at times treated like the frontrunner, sparring with multiple candidates over foreign policy, as well as staunchly defending Trump from any of the other candidates’ criticism of the former president.

Though Ramaswamy at one point took a shot at Christie for working with then-President Barack Obama on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in 2016, one of his opening lines to viewers, “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage?” evoked a similar line Obama used in his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he called himself “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too” — a similarity Christie pointed out on stage.

But Ramaswarmy’s rhetoric didn’t only imitate Obama’s, the political observers told OSV News, but Trump’s. In one notable moment, he accused some Republicans of going on “pilgrimages” to Ukraine to meet with “Pope Zelenskyy,” using a Catholic image while speaking disparagingly of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.

Schmuhl said Ramaswamy “comes across (as) a rhetorical flamethrower, eager to articulate definite yet debatable points.”

“Frankly, what he said about Ukraine suggested a strain of anti-Catholic prejudice. He understands that the more cutting and controversial statements get attention in today’s media,” Schmuhl said.

Ramaswarmy’s rhetoric about Zelenskyy, White said, “was an imitation of Trump.”

“The Republican Party is divided on Ukraine and a far cry away from the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan,” White said. “Christie and Pence were reminders of that party. Ukraine aid shows just how much the Republican Party has become the party of Donald Trump and America First.”

White said perhaps the debate’s most notable moment was when each candidate, with the only exceptions of Hutchinson and Christie, raised their hands when asked if they would support Trump if he were the nominee and if he were to be convicted of a crime.

“Expect to see that one in Biden ads,” he said.

Both scholars said despite his criminal indictments, Trump is poised to be his party’s nominee, and will likely continue to shun debates in favor of counter-programming efforts. Rather than join the debate, Trump opted for a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“Donald Trump sees himself as akin to the incumbent President, and more than two-thirds of Republicans think that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected,” Schmuhl said. “He keeps playing to the party base rather than trying to expand his support outside of it.”

“The former president has no desire to share even a glimmer of the spotlight with opponents for the nomination. He has more to lose than to gain, and Wednesday proved that even when he’s not participating, he’s still present at a debate,” he said. “You can bet that Trump will stage other counter-programing events to diminish the attention to future debates.”