BOSTON - Give the moderators from NBC News and Salem Radio their due (despite Vivek Ramaswamy's jaw-dropping suggestion that they should be replaced by the law firm of [Tucker] Carlson, [Elon] Musk & [Joe] Rogan) - they cut right to the chase in the latest, asking the candidates: why should Republicans back you instead of Donald J. Trump?
Ron DeSantis was first up, and it appears his days of side-stepping direct attacks on the former president are gone, along with his robust early poll numbers: "He should explain why he didn't have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn't drain the swamp. And he said Republicans were going to get tired of winning...I'm sick of Republicans losing."
That might have been DeSantis's best moment of the night. Nikki Haley's offering - "the fact that [Trump] used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues, now he's getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again. We've got to go back to the fact that we can't live in the past" - paled by comparison.
And while Chris Christie offered a punchy one-liner ("Anybody who's going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focused on keeping themselves out of jail in courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country"), it felt as if DeSantis had stolen his thunder.
Vivek Ramaswamy chose to answer the question by attacking the media. And Tim Scott ducked it altogether, offering only that he would "be the president who helps us restore faith in God, faith in each other, and faith in our future."
But it will be hard to gin up much faith in the future of these candidates. Any doubts they might have raised about Trump were left behind by a parade of elbow-throwing.
DeSantis acknowledged Haley's gains in recent polling by sniping at her role in bringing a Chinese manufacturer to South Carolina when she was governor. Ramaswamy repeatedly went after the two leading also-rans, with particular focus on Haley, who did nothing to hide her complete contempt for him, especially when he needled her over her daughter being on Tik-Tok.
Christie and Scott mostly avoided the fray and seemed irrelevant as a result.
Before these unmemorable debates began last summer, Trump was reportedly debating whether or not he should skip them. Whoever advised him to do so deserves a raise. By ghosting them, Trump effectively cut off any oxygen for their criticisms of him. The debates have done little to elevate any of them; Haley (full disclosure: a family member of mine works for her campaign) has moved up a bit, and DeSantis was less robotic than usual in this one.
So, score this another good night for the Trump campaign. One more scheduled debate to go next month, and then Iowa and New Hampshire will tell us if they ever mattered at all.
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