6 min read

What was the point of that?

After two hours, none of Trump’s rivals appeared any closer to threatening his control of the GOP field.
What was the point of that?

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The most important question of last night’s GOP debate was asked in the final two minutes.

No, not the one that asked the candidates which of their rivals they would vote “off the island,” Survivor-style. (Yes, that actually happened. The candidates refused to participate.)

I’m talking about this one, from Fox News host Dana Perino: “What is your mathematical path, Governor DeSantis, in order to try to beat President Trump who has a commanding and enduring lead in this race?”

Unfortunately, DeSantis didn’t answer, instead throwing out a canned line (“polls don’t elect presidents, voters elect presidents”) and moving on.

The question wasn’t put to any of the other candidates, and in the next minute, the debate had come to an end. “That does it,” Fox Business News anchor Stuart Varney announced. “I repeat, that does it.”

But that’s the only question that really matters at this stage of the campaign. As the Washington Post’s Michael Scherer noted, with Trump absent once again, the seven people on stage last night collectively command around 36% support in the national polling average. “If they were all one person,” he wrote, “they would still be losing to Trump by 20 percent.”

Very little grappling with this essential fact took place last night.

Sure, there were more digs directed Trump’s way than at the first debate, but they mostly revolved around the fact that Trump declined to show up. “Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis declared. “He should be on this stage tonight.” In one of the night’s more awkward moments, Chris Christie branded his onetime ally “Donald Duck.”

Besides jabs like that, the candidates on stage squabbled as though they were not all leagues behind the contest’s frontrunner — and as though that frontrunner was not facing four separate criminal indictments. Trump’s criminal charges weren’t mentioned once in the two-hour debate, by the candidates or the moderators.

That doesn’t mean some of the candidates didn’t have bright moments. Nikki Haley turned in a fiery performance, picking fights with DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and her fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott.

“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Haley told Ramaswamy in one of the night’s headline jabs. “Bring it, Tim,” she said, grinning, when Scott geared up to slam her (an attack that ended up being about... curtains?)

Scott and DeSantis also had much stronger stage presences than in the first debate. During the August go-around, both men ranked relatively low in speaking time, barely opening their mouths for long stretches of the action. Last night, DeSantis spoke the most, with Scott in third place and Ramaswamy sandwiched between them.

Graphic by the New York Times

The debate repeatedly devolved into rounds of crosstalk, as the candidates spoke over each other while the moderators failed to exercise control. At several of these moments, DeSantis sought to step in as the leader, reproaching his rivals for engaging in personal attacks. “This isn’t productive. Nobody can understand what’s going on,” he said at one point, as Scott and Ramaswamy sparred over the latter’s business deals in China. When the moderators attempted to play “Survivor,” it was DeSantis who shut them down: “I think that’s disrespectful to my fellow competitors.”

When the moderators weren’t struggling to quiet the candidates, they asked a string of solid policy questions — on topics ranging from child care to tech monopolies — but the candidates mostly pivoted away from them to offer choice lines from their stump speeches. A question to Pence about hate crimes against LGBT Americans became an answer about school choice (with a cringe-inducing aside about his “sleeping with a teacher for 38 years”). A question to DeSantis about Florida’s high number of uninsured people became an answer about gas prices.

Occasionally, the moderators stepped in to redirect the candidates, but not always. Presidential debates are rarely dignified, policy-focused affairs, but this one felt especially chaotic and devoid of substance. Low-polling candidate Doug Burgum interrupted so much that, at one point, Perino threatened to cut his microphone. “If I was at home watching that,” DeSantis said in a post-game interview, “I would have changed the channel.”

Speaking of low-on-substance, Ramaswamy largely fell flat, facing attacks from nearly all of his competitors and bizarrely responding with a nod to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican” — even after calling the other contenders “super PAC puppets” last time.

“A win for Russia is a win for China,” Nikki Haley said to Ramaswamy at one point, joining Pence and Scott in defending aid to Ukraine. “But I forgot, you like China.”

“I’m glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in 2018 in China,” Pence said. “That must’ve been about the time you decided to start voting in presidential elections.”

By the end of the night, no one on stage appeared ready to take on Trump and win — their shared task, even if they barely acknowledged it.

The frenzied squabbling just made the entire field seem small, with Trump towering over all of them in absentia.

After two hours that seemed unlikely to disrupt the contest’s status quo, Trump apparently decided he didn’t need to participate in the next debate, either. Trump adviser Chris LaCivita told CBS News last night that Trump will not be attending the third debate, which will take place in Miami on November 8 and feature a higher bar for entry.

Why would he? His rivals barely laid a glove on him last night. His polling has only increased since he skipped the first debate, and DeSantis’ has only shrank.

“They all want to be something: secretary of something, even VP,” Trump jeered from the sidelines last night, during a competing event in Michigan. “Anybody see a VP? Nah.”

More news to know.

Shutdown update: The House and Senate are no closer to averting a shutdown, with the funding deadline looming at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday.

Trump trials: “U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said Wednesday she won’t recuse herself from Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case in Washington, rejecting the former president’s claims that her past comments raise doubts about whether she can be fair.” — AP

Ukraine aid: “House Democrats and Republicans teamed up to defeat a pair of proposals to gut Ukraine funding in annual defense spending legislation, though each vote showed sizable GOP opposition to continued aid for Kyiv” — Politico

Menendez throwback: “Sen. Bob Menendez, charged last week with secretly aiding the Egyptian government in exchange for bribes, single-handedly blocked passage of bipartisan legislation in 2020 that would have strengthened the law regulating foreign influence and lobbying in Washington, Senate records show.” — NBC

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will deliver remarks in Tempe, Arizona, on the preservation of democracy. He will also honor the late Sen. John McCain, announcing plans to construct a McCain Library using funds from the 2021 stimulus package. Later today, Biden will attend a campaign fundraiser in Phoenix.

Senate: The upper chamber will vote to advance the bipartisan continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government open through November 17.

  • Also today: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is expected to address a meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus, as a growing number of colleagues call for his resignation in response to his corruption charges.

House: The lower chamber will continue work on the 12 annual appropriations bills.

  • Also today: The House Oversight Committee will hold the first hearing of the Biden impeachment inquiry.

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