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‘Very Middling Performance’: Here’s What GOP Insiders Thought Of The First 2024 Presidential Debate

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  • GOP political operatives don’t believe the first Republican presidential debate will reshape the primary’s landscape, they told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • Though former President Donald Trump skipped the debate, the operatives argue that he still won the night, as no other GOP hopefuls were able to cut into his massive lead.
  • “None of them just had a stellar night, and nobody had a horrible night,” Mark Weaver, a GOP strategist, told the DCNF. “It was rather a very middling performance by everybody.”

Republican political operatives weighed in on the performances of the eight 2024 presidential candidates who participated in Wednesday night’s debate, and told the Daily Caller News Foundation it likely won’t affect the primary.

While eight presidential hopefuls took the stage, the field’s frontrunner former President Donald Trump opted for a counter-programming interview with DCNF co-founder Tucker Carlson. Two GOP operatives argued that no candidate’s performance will be able to surmount Trump’s lead in the primary, and the former president largely won the night.

“It’s not going to have any effect on anything ultimately,” Mike McKenna, Republican consultant and president of MWR Strategies, told the DCNF. “[Trump’s] a week closer to the nomination, and nobody’s any closer to clearing the field.”

McKenna believes DeSantis’s debate performance was “fine,” but wished he would’ve been more direct in answering several questions posed by Fox News’ Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum.

“I was surprised that he wasn’t more definitive on the questions about climate change, about Trump and about Ukraine,” said McKenna. “I expected him to have pretty defined answers on all three of those things, right? When they came up, I thought that he was a little bit tentative on all three.”

Mark Weaver, a GOP strategist who also believes Trump won the night, echoed McKenna’s sentiment and told the DCNF the Florida governor “stayed where he is.”

“DeSantis didn’t advance very much and didn’t go further back very much,” said Weaver. “Vivek [Ramaswamy] may gain a couple points there, but I think DeSantis will keep his second place position, which is really just a footnote because Trump is ahead by 30 points plus.”

The RealClearPolitics (RCP) average for a 2024 national Republican primary, based on polls conducted between Aug. 10 and Aug. 21, indicates Trump is leading by over 40 points, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 14.3%, conservative businessman Vivek Ramaswamy at 7.2% and former Vice President Mike Pence at 4%. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott received 3.2%, 3.1% and 3%, respectively, and all other GOP hopefuls garnered less than 1% support.

Weaver previously thought that the GOP hopefuls would target DeSantis in Trump’s absence, but argued the focus was more on Ramaswamy last night. The Republican strategist said that while the conservative businessman made some “one liners” that resonate with the GOP base, he wasn’t specific on policy and was called out for it.

“He’s a child who talks too much,” said McKenna.

Jon McHenry, a GOP polling analyst and vice president of North Star Opinion Research, argued Ramaswamy’s debate performance “locked in a cap of 15 percent” with his stances on foreign policy with regard to Russia, China, Ukraine and Taiwan.

“I had the impression that not just the other candidates on stage found him abrasive but the live audience did as well,” McHenry told the DCNF. “If you want an isolationist, why would you choose him over Trump? Trump doesn’t have a warm, fuzzy personality, but his supporters certainly think he’ll fight for them. With Ramaswamy, I’m not sure they get that sense.”

McHenry argued that Haley had the best debate performance, noting when she blamed her fellow competitors to their face for the hurting economy.

“She took advantage of the opportunity to introduce herself to the Republican primary voters who are just tuning in as tough on foreign policy and tough on government spending — and did a great job of tying Scott, Pence, and DeSantis into our deficits and debt as having voted for that spending,” said McHenry.

McKenna said that up until last night’s debate, he had no clue why Pence was running for president, but it’s now obvious why he is after going out of his way to bring up January 6.

“He’s not running to win, he’s not running to get something, he’s not running for anything, he’s running for legacy purposes,” said McKenna. “He wants to make sure that everybody knows he did what he thought he should have done.”

While Weaver noted Pence had one good “ad lib” about the mental competency tests in Washington, D.C., he still “comes off so stilted and wooden.” McHenry differed, and argued the former vice president “overperformed expectations.”

“He had the platform to remind people that he’s a serious candidate with experience and convictions,” said McHenry. “I’m not sure that changes his position in the race, but I think a lot of voters could see him onstage and say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a reason he was Trump’s VP.’”

After watching last night’s debate, McKenna said he still isn’t convinced why Haley, Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum or former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson are vying for the nomination, and argued Scott is running for vice president or 2028. The Republican strategist argued that the only thing the debate indicated is that by the time the Iowa caucus comes around in January, two or three of the candidates on the stage last night will no longer be in the running.

“None of them just had a stellar night, and nobody had a horrible night,” said Weaver. “It was rather a very middling performance by everybody.”

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