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The Reagan Library Debate: Unpacking the GOP’s night of political theatre

Amidst the illustrious setting of the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, a political spectacle unfolded Wednesday night that accurately captured the essence of modern-day GOP politics.

The stage was full of hopefuls, but there was one notable absentee, a man who thrives in the spotlight — former President Donald Trump. He instead chose an unconventional path for the night, addressing blue-collar workers in Detroit, a strategic move aimed at diverting attention away from the debate stage. Trump’s decision was a declaration that these debates are inconsequential; he contends his rematch with President Joe Biden is already underway. Yet, beneath Trump’s confident bravado, the latest polls tell a slightly different story, one that might not be as favorable for Trump as he would have us believe.

According to a recent CBS News/YouGov survey conducted in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it appears that more Republican voters in these crucial early states have ruled out voting for Trump than have firmly decided to back him. In Iowa, only 20% of voters claim to be exclusively considering Trump, while a substantial 48% are weighing their options between the former president and other candidates. Shockingly, 31% of Iowa voters in the poll are not even considering casting their ballots for Trump, leaving a whopping 79% of the electorate open to, or committed to, other candidates.

The story is no different in New Hampshire, where the poll showed 23% of voters are committed to supporting Trump, but 43% are keeping their options open, and 34% are exclusively considering candidates other than Trump. Despite this, Trump still maintains significant leads over his competition when voters are asked who they would vote for if the elections were held today. In Iowa, Trump garners the support of 51% of Republicans, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis trailing at 21% and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at 8%. In New Hampshire, Trump enjoys an even greater lead.

The goal for GOP candidates not named Trump is clear: leverage the debate stage to momentarily steal the media spotlight and along with it, GOP voters wavering on Trump.

A recent NBC News poll tantalized with an interesting look ahead: in a direct matchup with Biden, other GOP contenders actually polled better than Trump. Haley emerged from the NBC poll with a five-point lead over Biden in a hypothetical matchup, seizing 46% to Biden’s 41%. This put the former South Carolina governor ahead not only of Biden but also Trump, who shared the 46% marker with the incumbent. But actually getting to that general election will be an uphill battle for candidates on the debate stage, considering Trump’s edge in political fundraising and infrastructure.

The evening’s opening questions focused on the contentious UAW Union Strike, swiftly transitioning into a multifaceted critique of the Biden administration’s policies. Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis came out swinging against Trump early and their message was resounding: Trump’s absence wasn’t a result of poll numbers or legal conundrums, they said, but a fear of defending his record. Chris Christie, looking directly into the camera, spoke to the former president: “You’re not here tonight, not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record.”

DeSantis also took aim at Trump in his opening salvo. “Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis charged. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt that set the stage for the inflation that we have.”

The debate was a mixed bag, spanning the gamut from interpersonal sparring to leveraging Trump’s absence to attack the frontrunner without return fire. Mike Pence tried awkwardly to infuse levity into the proceedings a few times, but Pence’s comedic nuances floundered amid the contrast of the contentious political waters.

Haley, widely considered among the big winners in the first debate, had a slow start, ensnared by questions that didn’t align with her political strengths. However, she quickly rebounded, delivering a stinging retort to political upstart Vivek Ramaswamy: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Haley jabbed. It was in the domains of national security and foreign policy that Haley found her stride, her experience and expertise on full display.

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott also squared off against Ramaswamy early on, devolving into a back-and-forth with the mics turned off and the audience unable to hear most of the exchange. Ramaswamy, for his part, persisted in his argument for a swift withdrawal from funding Ukraine in its standoff against Russia. In opposition, Haley emerged as the resolute champion for continued Ukrainian military assistance, declaring, “A win for Russia is a win for China.”

The moderators found themselves in the unenviable role of traffic cops, attempting to rein in candidates as they clamored for speaking time. A late-debate clash between Scott and Haley, fellow South Carolinians, stood as a testament to the evening’s contentious intensity. It commenced with a squabble over gas taxes during Haley’s gubernatorial tenure but wended its way into the absurd, finally landing on the cost of drapes in her UN Ambassadorial quarters. A quintessential moment where politics, with all its gravitas, momentarily tipped its hat to the theater of the silly that falls flat with many voters more worried about their pocketbooks than the cost of window treatments.

The Reagan Library debate offered a mosaic of the GOP platform’s most pressing issues. From the border crisis and the Ukraine conflict to the looming fentanyl epidemic, spiraling inflation, economic troubles, and ever-rising energy prices, all took their place in the spotlight.

This debate, like the previous one, compels us to ponder the crossroads at which the Republican Party currently stands. Does Trump’s dismissal of the debates and its participants as irrelevant hold water, or do these very contests chart the course for the party’s future?

As the 2024 election inches closer, the future of the Republican Party remains a captivating enigma, shrouded in uncertainty with more questions than answers. Can Trump continue to avoid the debate stage? Will a formidable contender from within the party emerge, bolstered by impressive showings in the early state primaries? Is Trump’s base of support enough to ensure his effortless nomination, or do the polls hint at a chink in his strategic armor?

One thing is certain: in this theater of presidential politics, the show must go on, and the campaign is still in its opening acts. The final chapter has yet to be written, but the trajectory of this political season will likely mirror the tone set by Wednesday night’s debate: a divided GOP, grappling to define its beliefs and its future, much like the broader tapestry of America itself.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.

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