Scott finally showed a pulse. Ramaswamy did a 180. Here’s who won and lost the second GOP debate.


We asked five POLITICO campaign reporters for their takeaways from the second Republican primary debate of the 2024 campaign.

Who had the best night? Who had the worst night?

Natalie Allison: Tim Scott. It was more than an hour into the debate that I realized I could say anyone on stage was actually having a good night, but I would argue he redeemed himself in the eyes of donors — and likely the voters who have been intrigued by him — compared to his last debate performance.

Despite a rusty start, when he seemed a bit uncomfortable, Scott eventually made use of the rhetorical trick he has successfully employed on the stump for years: raising his preacher voice. Faced with questions about racial inequality, particularly as it relates to African Americans in this country, Scott is uniquely qualified to answer. And did so in a way that was likely to resonate with many conservatives of faith. “I have been discriminated against, but America is not a racist country,” Scott said. “Frankly the city on the hill needs a brand new leader, and I’m asking for your vote.”

What’s more, Scott interrupted folks tonight. In Milwaukee, he faded into the background. Tonight, he went after Ramaswamy, at one point launching an indecipherable couple of minutes where Scott, Ramaswamy and DeSantis (who was trying to get the other two men to stop) were speaking over one another. And he showed no reluctance, when prompted by the moderators, to go after Nikki Haley — something those of us following the South Carolinians have been waiting months to see.

Worst night? Poor Burgum. After qualifying at the last minute, he tried his hardest to insert himself into the debate by interrupting. But he got very few questions directed his way — and some scolding when he tried to interject.

Christopher Cadelago: Scott, no question. In a presidential debate that seemed to have the lowest stakes of any in recent memory, he showed a pulse. And for Scott, that was enough to turn in the most complete and substantive performance of the night. Sure, he benefited from a sleepy showing from DeSantis, who whined early on about Trump not being there and then disappeared for painfully long stretches of time.

This is the second debate that DeSantis failed to notch anything approaching a memorable moment mixing it up with an opponent on stage, let alone a viral one. Instead, he resorted to scripted and rehearsed riffs, feeding critiques that he can’t think on his feet.

Sally Goldenberg: After a notably lackluster debate performance last month in Milwaukee, Scott showed up with a new script. He was energetic — repeatedly interjecting himself even if it meant interrupting. He mixed it up with Ramaswamy, Haley and DeSantis, while staying relatively above the fray. At times, he risked undermining his affable persona, but it was a risk worth taking as Scott needs to demonstrate to GOP donors that he’s a reasonable alternative to Trump. On Wednesday, he made progress on that front.

Pence, on the other hand, fell flat after a strong showing at the previous debate. He didn’t stand out, he stumbled over some of his answers — leading to awkward pauses — and he was even scolded by a moderator at one point for failing to answer a question on the future of Obamacare. Perhaps most importantly, he didn’t do enough to highlight his bona fides as a religious conservative leader, which should be one of his selling points to the Republican Party.

Steven Shepard: The best night belonged to Nikki Haley. She showed a willingness to mix it up with anyone, jabbing at Ramaswamy and DeSantis. When moderator Dana Perino tried to tee up a back-and-forth between the two South Carolinians on stage, Scott wouldn’t take the bait.

But Haley did. “He’s been there 12 years, and he hasn’t done any of that,” she said, mocking his congressional tenure, including his promotion to the Senate thanks to Haley’s appointment. “Where have you been? Where have you been, Tim?”

Only then did Scott respond in kind, hitting at Haley’s record as governor. But even then, Haley welcomed the counterattack, goading him: “Bring it, Tim.”

I do think Scott did himself some favors Wednesday night — he’s dropped to 2 percent in the national polling average and needed to be more assertive to assure a spot on the next debate stage — but Haley got the better of their exchange.

Last month, I said Ramaswamy had the worst night, and I think he followed up with a repeat performance. He conceded that he could be a “bit of a know-it-all,” but that didn’t stop the onslaught from the other candidates on stage. Given his slide in the polls since the first debate, I’m not convinced attacking him is a smart debate strategy. But the other candidates sure do seem to enjoy it, and some of the night’s most memorable moments were the arrows aimed at him.

Adam Wren: Nobody had a great night. But from a strategic perspective, Mike Pence did something smart, attacking two candidates polling ahead of him: DeSantis and Ramaswamy. And the line on Ramaswamy was a zinger: “Let me say I’m glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in 2018 in China. That must’ve been the time you decided to start voting in presidential elections.”

My biggest loser? Ronald Reagan. Even though I watched a few candidates wander over to his gravesite not far from the media file tent earlier in the day, I was struck by how little candidates namechecked the Gipper even on his home turf (Scott spoke of a “shining city on the hill” and DeSantis mentioned Reagan’s deterrence strategy.) And few candidates seemed to have any problem violating Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Haley went so far as to say that every time she heard Ramaswamy speak she felt “a little bit dumber for what you say.” For his part, Ramaswamy was a bit of a corrective here, implicitly referring to Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, appealing to the spirit of that edict several times, acknowledging that those on stage were “good people.”

What surprised you the most during the debate?

Cadelago: Ramaswamy, after serving as a kind of super-troll and wild puncher on stage in the first debate, was anything but in the second. Ramaswamy at the start of the evening seemed to go to great lengths to pronounce himself largely in agreement with Scott on striking unions and holding President Joe Biden accountable for the situation. A few minutes later, Ramaswamy contended that the majority of reasonable people were in agreement about where the country needs to go. “These are good people on this stage,” he emphasized.

Even as he sustained hits, at one point prompting him to interject that he ended all his business in China, it was a very different Ramaswamy, one who seemed to swill fewer pots of coffee before he stepped on stage in Simi Valley. He wasn’t even provoked by Haley saying she gets “dumber” each time she hears him speak. That’s restraint. And the kind of approach a young man might take to maybe, possibly, land a Cabinet post.

Allison: I agree with Chris. I was surprised at the debate in August when Ramaswamy portrayed himself the way he did, since I’ve seen him for months on the campaign trail pitch himself as a unifier. He and his advisers have clearly realized his original approach was the better branding strategy for him.

Wren: Add me to the column of people surprised by Ramaswamy. He presented himself as more of a statesman in this debate than the “annoying” upstart some found him to be in the first debate.

Beyond that, I was shocked how virtually none of the candidates laid a glove on Haley, who perhaps most capitalized on her first debate performance in Milwaukee to elevate her position in the field. None of her competitors arrested that momentum tonight.

Shepard: It did seem like Wednesday night was the first time some of these candidates began to grapple with the fact that they’re so far behind Trump. DeSantis hit Trump twice for skipping the debate, including on abortion. But it’s not clear GOP primary voters are as offended Trump isn’t there.

Goldenberg: Virtually no candidate on stage seemed to realize they are in an uphill battle against Donald Trump. Aside from a few jabs — DeSantis hitting him for raising the national debt; Christie alleging he was too afraid to show up to the faceoff — the Republican contenders largely avoided the overwhelming frontrunner. It has been their strategy all along, but as Trump’s lead grows, it is surprising they aren’t shifting course.

Did anything we saw tonight hurt Donald Trump?

Goldenberg: No. If Republican voters are interested in substantive discussions on the economy, the Southern border, urban crime and the war in Ukraine, the candidates on stage offered some detailed policy positions. But this remains the party of Trump, and no one debating tonight did anything to change that. They barely challenged him on the losses he’s cost the GOP — and even when DeSantis raised that point, he did it without naming Trump or saying Trump lost in 2020.

Cadelago: Not only won’t it hurt Trump, it’s more likely to help him. If Trump made the right strategic call to skip the first debate, he unquestionably made the correct decision tonight by sitting out what amounted to single-A ball with distracted umpires. And if attending future debates is even a question for Trump, nothing that happened on stage in California should give him pause about ditching every one of these until the general election.

Wren: To mix Christopher’s sports metaphors, this debate felt like a scrum of 5-year-olds chasing a soccer ball around the field as the actual goal — distinguishing themselves from Trump — found itself rather lonesome.

Allison: No. I suppose it is notable that members of Trump’s team once again showed up at a debate he wasn’t participating in (so it isn’t utterly irrelevant in their eyes), and his campaign spent the debate tweeting out unflattering photos of Chris Christie. Trump himself put out a Truth Social post afterward about Christie, while defending his own record. But I don’t see how much of anything said or done tonight could have done any serious damage to Trump’s standing.

Shepard: There are only two things that can hurt Trump at this point: his legal peril and early-state elections. A criminal conviction or a surprisingly weak performance in Iowa or New Hampshire could actually threaten his lead.

But nothing that happened in the first two debates — or any subsequent ones, for that matter — will weaken Trump. What the debates will do is clarify the field of candidates other than Trump, in the event he does become vulnerable.

How will this debate change the trajectory of the race?

Shepard: The next debate is six weeks away, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Haley is challenging DeSantis for second place by the time the candidates — at this point, almost certainly without Trump — meet again. Does that weaken Trump’s hold over the primary? No, but if this does become a race at some point, it means that DeSantis isn’t necessarily the most likely non-Trump option.

Allison: Frankly, there was a lack of enthusiasm across the board going into this debate. It felt like nothing more than a placeholder until the next one, when maybe there will be fewer candidates on stage, maybe they will finally get serious about making the case against Trump and maybe Trump himself will show (though that seems even less likely now).

Here in beautiful Simi Valley, and in part due to the nature of the venue, there was next to no buzz ahead of time — no massive Ramaswamy gaggles outside his campaign bus like in Milwaukee, for example — and a smaller number of operatives walking around making their pitches to reporters. The candidates themselves only got a small fraction of the debate tickets as last time, just 10 each, according to multiple campaigns, which meant they left a lot of their surrogates behind. It was boring, it was lame. The candidates’ energy on stage left something to be desired. Amateur hour for the moderators.

There were a few Trump zingers over his failure to show. But there was no meaningful takedown of the former president, and no indication that there will be any meaningful shift in the current field before the third debate.

Wren: It didn’t. If you’re a donor on the sidelines who watched this debate, I don’t see how you came away willing to throw any of these particular candidates money when so few of them had breakout moments.

Goldenberg: This debate will not change the trajectory of the race.

Cadelago: There will be more external and internal pressure on this still-large field to shrink, but doing so will take some candidates admitting to themselves the obvious: they don’t have a chance and should drop out.


Source link