The first Republican presidential debate showed that every candidate showed the same thing stable poll numbers in the following weeks.
But with every participant in Wednesday night’s second GOP debate trailing Donald Trump by at least 30 points, everyone will be looking to create a little more turmoil as the candidates take the stage in front of the Reagan Library’s decommissioned Air Force One plane.
Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley enter Wednesday night’s debate in an even fight for the hearts and minds of anti-Trump donors as the most realistic MAGA alternative. For everyone else – with the small exception of Vivek Ramswamy, who redeemed his novelty tokens the first time – it will be a fight for survival.
And that may be true most of all for DeSantis.
“He needs to get his act together,” a source close to the DeSantis campaign in New Hampshire told The Daily Beast, lamenting that the candidate hasn’t been back in the state for nearly two months and desperately needs a change of momentum.
“It’s almost beyond repair. “Almost,” a source close to a non-Trump competitor’s campaign said of DeSantis. “He has to figure out who he is in this race. He is no longer the co-leader. He’s no longer the guy every donor fawns over. He is none of those things. So if he’s trying to be the social conservative and culture warrior that he tried to be to get to Trump’s side in Iowa, like Ted Cruz did, then he needs to recognize that.”
Despite widespread expectations that DeSantis would receive the bulk of the incoming attacks at the first debate, the focus eventually shifted almost exclusively to the candidates attacking Ramaswamy.
If the Florida governor gets stuck in this contest with everyone else, it could finally reveal something about who he really is in the context of his extremely insular and staged campaign.
“Debates either reveal who you are or who you like to pretend to be,” said the rival campaign source. “And Ron DeSantis doesn’t seem comfortable with any of those things.”
DeSantis’ own organization is aware of how important this debate will be for him to regain his status as the most realistic Trump alternative.
“He needs to lead the debate,” the pro-DeSantis Republican said. “He doesn’t have to get into a pissing contest with anyone, but he does have to make his point of view clear. He knows how to get his point across clearly without acting like a Vivek-crazy person.”
As DeSantis’ operation throws a wrench into a pivotal moment in the Florida governor’s race, Ramaswamy’s team exudes renewed confidence.
A source close to the Ramaswamy campaign said the biopharmaceutical entrepreneur planned to have a surfing session on Tuesday evening to prepare for the debate – similar to how Ramaswamy campaigned for his debate last time Preparation for the debate consisted of tennis games– but his flight was too late to make this possible.
With donors on the sidelines and poll numbers plummeting, DeSantis must prove he can pass, the New Hampshire Republican said. And that means dealing with what Fox News host Bret Baier called “the elephant that’s not in the room” at the first contest in Milwaukee.
“Basically,” the DeSantis source said, “he can’t be afraid to get involved in the Donald Trump issue.”
Among Republican elites, Wednesday night is shaping up to be the Florida governor’s last, best chance to stop the bleeding.
“How can he survive? It seems the longer he stays in, the worse he looks,” an RNC member involved in debate planning told The Daily Beast. “I mean, I have to believe he’s a smart man and that his heart is probably in the right place, but he doesn’t seem to have a heart, which is a bit of a problem. And you can’t send your wife there to be your heart.”
What DeSantis needs, the RNC member said, is a direct moment in front of the camera where he can connect with voters angry with him.
“He needs to give the impression that he cares,” the Republican said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the evening, for which he is not authorized to speak to the press. “I’ve had calls this week from people saying he doesn’t seem to really care about people.”
The second debate of the primary so far, again without the former president, could pose greater risks to the other candidates on the stage who will be desperate to join in with the future contenders. But with DeSantis falling out of the top two in New Hampshire and South Carolina — and, crucially, falling even further from Trump’s focus as a threat — the Florida governor’s first task is to stop the rising Haley.
After enjoying her biggest surge in the polls yet following the first debate in August, Haley is also beginning to earn the enduring mark of her power in a modern GOP primary: a Trump nickname.
While the Trump campaign may not have dusted off its script for the former UN ambassador’s funeral, he has at least given her the new nickname “.”Nikki “Birdbrain” Haley” in a Truth Social post shortly after midnight on Monday.
To take away any momentum from Haley, a Republican strategist said her support for supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion would likely be the easiest target for her Republican rivals.
“I think the big thing will be that she supports a lot of the funding of the endless war in Ukraine, which is not at all popular with the Republican base,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the race and the increasing problems to be able to speak about the sensitive issue of Ukraine financing. “Sending money there is not a popular topic, so I think her very neo-conservative positions, which make her vulnerable, will lead to people like Vivek coming after her.”
Haley is currently the field’s top candidate in single-division elections against President Joe Biden, having been able to maintain a lead. Meanwhile, Trump had moved closer to a dead heat with Biden.
Another factor that could play in Haley’s favor, said the RNC member who helped plan the debate, was that tickets sold much better at the Reagan Library than for the opening night in Milwaukee. A smaller and less boisterous crowd could tilt the mood in their favor when it comes to issues like Ukraine aid.
“They set more parameters than anyone else, but it’s done out of respect and responsibility for what they do there,” the RNC member said of the venue. “Other places would probably let a few more people in, but they don’t want it to be too crowded and they want it to be a good experience for everyone. So it’s a little more elitist.”
However tenuous the mood may be among the GOP bigwigs who have secured a ticket for the big night in California, Trump’s huge lead and the third debate, which doesn’t take place until November 8, pose a different problem.
Will anyone do anything to make the debates relevant, or will the returns diminish from here on out?
“I don’t think the returns go down because Trump doesn’t show up,” the RNC member said, “but if they don’t win anything, it becomes a little pointless.”
There will be increasing pressure on candidates to drop out if they cannot qualify for the next candidacy. This dynamic is reinforced by the desire of Never-Trump Republicans to unite behind an alternative before it is too late.
For Haley, it is her best chance to win over DeSantis donors who have so far remained on the sidelines, the GOP strategist explained.
“You have the Vivek track, which is similar to the 8 to 12 percent track. Then the Ron trace, which is about 10 to 20 percent. “So I think she needs to show that she can be a strong alternative to both and someone who can stay on the side and pose a lasting challenge to Trump,” the strategist said. “And then after the debate, can she get those DeSantis donors to come to her as a potential alternative to Trump?”
While it may be Haley who takes up the mantle of greatest hope for Republicans desperate to move on from Trump, someone has to do something at some point to make the 2024 primary a real contest again.
“If we want the Republican Party to move forward,” the RNC member said, “it cannot continue to be the party of Trump.”
If no one makes a breakthrough, the chances of future debates making a difference will continue to dwindle, the Republican said, hoping more undecided voters tune in.
“To me, everyone there is superior to Trump, and I think we need to give the American people enough good choices to make them pay attention,” this Republican said.