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Everyone lost the second debate — especially the audience

It’s difficult to land a knockout punch, or any serious blow for that matter, on an opponent who doesn’t show up or won’t step into the ring. That’s the rationale of former President Donald Trump’s decision to skip the second Republican debate of the 2024 presidential campaign, and why he will still be the leader in the polls after the dust settles from this throw-down at the Reagan Ranch.

The first question included a recitation of recent polls on general concerns; a long, rambling and scripted set-up that involved all three moderators reading their roles. The question was longer than the candidate it was asked of — Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — was allotted to answer it. It’s rather odd to cut a candidate off for going over time when the question is a book chapter.

Scott’s answer was fine, as was his performance. But it was also forgettable. Everyone was forgettable, except for the moderators, who were horrible.

Stuart Varney of Fox Business asked a question that would have been right at home on MSNBC, all about CEO pay versus UAW line worker pay. Then there was a question about the federal government and child care — not food or gas prices, but child care. Here’s a hint: People who want the government to pay for the care of their kids are not likely to be voting in a Republican primary.

Then came the “gun violence” question and the utterly bogus slavery question about Florida education from the Univision anchor. That one might as well have been planted by the Democratic National Committee.

Former Vice President Mike Pence tried to make a joke about President Joe Biden being on the unemployment line, but it was too forced and fell flat. So was his “joke” about Vivek Ramaswamy not voting in the past. He was not the same man he had been in the first debate, when he radiated energy. He was canned and, frankly, boring.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley started strong, continuing what she had been doing in the first debate. She then disappeared as the other candidates stepped on and talked over each other. She was there, I saw her in the wide shots, but she was silent for a long time. When she did speak again, she did very well, speaking passionately about fentanyl and the border, for example. I’m not sure many minds were changed, but the people inclined in her direction were not dissuaded tonight.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum woke up this time around…a little. While he still didn’t speak much compared to the others, when he did, he did so forcefully. His inserting himself into the discussion of the UAW strike was a smart move. He wouldn’t allow himself to be ignored, no matter how hard the moderators tried.

Ramaswamy was a different candidate this time around. He was still as slick as a used car salesman, but this time he made a point of saying everyone on stage was a good person. That’s quite a change from the last debate, in which he asserted that everyone on the stage was bought and paid for by special interests, except for himself, of course.

He praised everyone and it wasn’t effective. He got attention the first time only because of his attitude, but attitude alone isn’t enough. Two debates and countless media appearances in and I still have no idea who Vivek Ramaswamy is as a person, aside from a man who did business in China when he was in business, and now wants to downplay that fact as much as possible.

Crime finally came up, after not being a factor in the first debate. But the question went to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is sitting at about 2 percent in the polls. This is the problem with having such a low bar for participation. In any case, Christie gave a good, short answer, then taunted Trump to the camera, because that’s why he’s in this race.

Ultimately, as any “debate” with that many people participating would be, it was a mess. The GOP really needs to set the bar higher to eliminate candidates whose campaigns are more vanity projects than anything else. Four should be the number, and only one moderator.

Most of the answers on the issues, when they got around to talking about issues voters care about, were solid from all the candidates – they really don’t disagree much. There was some sniping, especially at the end, but it came off as petty and personal, which didn’t really leave any marks on anyone.

So, it brings the “winners” down to a matter of style. That’s a personal choice that, ultimately, means very little of it really mattered.

It’s weird that I haven’t mentioned Florida Governor Ron DeSantis yet, but that’s kind of how the whole debate was for everyone. I’ve only mentioned each candidate because I can’t just write a reaction piece about how horrible the moderators were.

DeSantis was the only person on the stage with an active and impressive record on the issues of the day, yet nothing he said was particularly memorable, aside from his answer on the ridiculous slavery question. Nothing he said was bad, it was solid and I’d give him the win, but it was in the ether as soon as it left his mouth.

Nothing anyone said was particularly memorable, and neither was the debate.

And that was the story of this debate. It just happened. It was nothing special. There were no memorable moments, everyone was fine…and that’s it.

The moderators were bad, and to the extent that any swiping happened, it was inconsequential. The only result is a likely further little dip in the polls for Trump, because sooner or later you have to run for president like you want the job, not like you deserve it.

Derek Hunter is host of the Derek Hunter Podcast and a former staffer for the late Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

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