Who won the GOP presidential showdown? We asked top Emory U debaters

MIAMI – The two-hour Republican debate pivoted from foreign crises to tax policy to abortion rights to the size of the U.S. naval armada. It was at times dizzying, illuminating and uncomfortable.

Over at Politically Georgia on WABE, your AJC team discussed the showdown with veteran strategists Tharon Johnson and Brian Robinson.

But we also surveyed top Emory University scholars who have studied the art of debate.

Here’s what three of them had to say:

Grace Kessler, of Topeka, Kansas, is a senior at Emory, champion debater and editor-in-chief of the Emory Political Review:

“Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had a strong performance. The attacks consistently directed her way reflect her rise in recent polls. The first hour of the debate centered on foreign policy, where Haley has extensive expertise and a persuasive message centered around the need for an America that leads on the world stage. …

“While I disagree with her position on abortion, I find Haley’s articulation of her stance to be the most compelling relative to her Republican counterparts. She strikes more of a middle ground, which seems like sound strategy at a time when the country is overwhelmingly voting in support of abortion rights.

“I was struck by Governor DeSantis’ martyr-like rhetoric at the open and close of the debate. Increasingly, politicians speak to their supporters as if everyone is under attack, but the politician is the savior willing to take the ‘arrows,’ in DeSantis’s words. Donald Trump uses this rhetorical ploy frequently, so perhaps others are catching on to his strategy’s efficacy.

Shreyas Rajagopal of Coppell, Texas, is a senior at Emory and champion debater who is headed to medical school next year:

“One of the most striking elements of Wednesday’s presidential debate was how candidates solidified their ‘brand.’ On issues like social security, foreign policy, and healthcare, it was evident that former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley possessed some of the clearest short-term and long-term policy proposals. For other candidates like Ron DeSantis, an orientation towards tangible solutions seemed to be compromised for story time, as he recounted meaningful encounters but fell short of laying out concrete steps to achieve lofty goals.”

Henry Mitchell, a senior from Chicago, and top debater:

“Watching the debate was a friendly reminder that what happens at college debate tournaments has almost no resemblance to what most Americans have as their understanding of ‘debate.’ This is, of course, not surprising. Still, the stark differences jump out in moments like Vivek Ramaswamy’s ad hominem attacks on Nikki Haley, the complete evasion of questions asked by the moderators, and the cheers in response to fearmongering about the Southern border. While those of us who debate in an academic setting don’t consider these to be legitimate tactics, on stage anything goes. The goal of the college debater is to convince qualified judges that their arguments are most robust. The goal of the five candidates in the GOP debate is to drum up voters that are for the most part still behind the 45th president.”

About the Author