Their task is no easy one. Each of the seven has fruitlessly tried to fashion himself or herself into Trump’s top threat while endeavoring not to alienate his loyal base — a bloc of voters that polls show could make up more than half of the GOP electorate.
They’ve tried in vain to confront Trump, or to avoid confronting Trump; to mimic his rhetoric, or to focus on their policy contrasts; to warn of President Joe Biden’s edge in a rematch, or to warn of the four indictments that could land Trump in prison.
The debate Wednesday displayed new facets of their strategies. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dubbed Trump “Donald Duck” for ducking the Republican Party’s two debates so far. DeSantis used his opening to scold Trump for going “missing in action.”
And DeSantis jumped on Trump for calling anti-abortion laws enacted in Georgia, Florida and several other states a “terrible thing.” Trump, the governor said, must explain “his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
The candidate who may have turned the most heads was former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who seemed perpetually in the middle of the most heated exchanges.
She sparred with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian, over the state’s tax policies. And she had the most cutting attack on tech executive Vivek Ramaswamy, her disdain evident when she said she felt “a little bit dumber” every time he spoke.
But the chaotic back-and-forth and combative shouting matches failed to upend a race that has remained more or less stagnant for months. While there has been minor movement from candidates at the bottom of the pack, Trump’s commanding edge remains unrivaled.
Time is on Trump’s side. With less than four months before the Iowa caucuses, the fractious field plays to his advantage, just as it did during the 2016 nominating contest. And the long shots have defied expectations by remaining in the contest despite marginal support from voters and donors.
Fox moderator Dana Perino brought up this dynamic in a question, saying it’s “obvious that if you all stay in the race” Trump will win the GOP nod. But when she asked which of them should be “voted off the island,” she was met with protests — and the question went ignored.
That’s fine by Trump, who is already looking past the GOP field and toward Biden. He leaned into the idea that his absence relegated the debate into a sideshow, only briefly mentioning the showdown at a stop outside Detroit.
Speaking to autoworkers, he joked that the contenders were seeking a Cabinet post and asked whether any of them saw a potential running mate in the group. Then he answered his own question.
“I don’t think so.”