Every candidate declared victory after Wednesday night’s first Republican presidential debate — even some who didn’t take the stage.
But what’s next for these self-proclaimed winners on the road to the Republican Party nomination? Raising money, connecting with as many early nominating state voters as possible, and, for some, finding a way to bow out gracefully from the race.
For Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a top-tier candidate who, according to many pundits, had a decent but not great night in Milwaukee, the plan seems to be to re-introduce himself to voters.
“My name is Ron DeSantis, and I’m running for president of the United States,” a campaign text told Iowa voters on Thursday. DeSantis, according to the message, wanted to remind everybody why he’s running for president.
After some rough months of declining poll numbers since launching his much-anticipated campaign in late May, Team DeSantis had been going through a “reset” of sorts for the past few weeks — shaking up campaign staff, seeking greater “efficiencies,” and finding more ways to move his message.
One of the most richly funded campaigns is also looking for more money.
“Ron crushed the competition,” an arguably overly exuberant campaign appeal declared. “He WON and it’s our job to keep the momentum going! Donate NOW!?
A command and a question all at once.
It seemed to work.
Fox News reported that the Florida governor and Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy “experienced an impressive fundraising surge following the first Republican debate.”
DeSantis’ campaign confirmed to Fox News Digital that it pulled in more than $1 million in the 24 hours after the main event.
Ramaswamy’s campaign told the New York Post it hauled in $460,000 on debate night and $600,000 on Thursday, bringing his total more than $1 million in new funds over 24 hours. He has mostly self-funded since launching six months ago, loaning his committee north of $15 million of the $19 million raised.
Ramaswamy declared victory, too. A lot of political strategists and debate watchers agreed. The 38-year-old political outsider who has surged in the polls (relatively speaking in a race dominated by former President Donald Trump), took much of the slings and arrows from his seven rivals on the stage, most of them looking up at him from lower poll positions.
“It seemed like Ramaswamy was in the middle of all of those,” said Wisconsin Republican strategist Mark Graul, who served as Wisconsin state director for George W. Bush‘s 2004 presidential re-election campaign. “He did a really good job of making himself a central figure in the debate, and it’s hard to argue anyone else had any more attention than he did, for better or worse.”
The anti-woke crusader, like DeSantis, was taking his Swamentum this weekend to the first-in-the-nation caucus state with a frenzied, eight-stop campaign schedule in two days. He spoke to overflow crowds at the Fireside Bistro in Indianola, Iowa, Friday morning. His campaign planned for 100 people; it welcomed 300, Iowa State Senate President Jake Chapman, Ramaswamy’s Iowa co-chair, told the Des Moines Register.
The turnout was so large that the campaign ordered more food for attendees, a sign that Ramaswamy got a bump in interest after the debate, Chapman told the newspaper.
“I’m the only candidate who has a (Ronald) Reagan 1980-style victory with a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition, particularly with people who are not just older, but people who are younger who we are bringing into our party,” Ramaswamy told event-goers.
Graul said former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley had the debate’s strongest showing, doing well in “carving her lane.” Haley, the only woman in the Republican Party presidential nomination chase, drew applause after turning the old Margaret Thatcher line, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” She also found some tracking in her attack on Republicans, including Trump, for signing off on nearly $8 trillion in debt — before and during COVID.
Haley’s campaign boasted about taking in “more online grassroots donations in the first 24 hours after the debate than in any other single day,” and that traffic to her campaign website had risen 10-fold. But the campaign provided no campaign finance numbers.
The former South Carolina governor, whose polling numbers pre-debate were holding at less than 4 percent, is heading back to her home state next week. She’ll be at a campaign event Monday with U.S. Representative Ralph Norman (R-SC-05) and state Representative Mike Neese (R-Indian Land), and a meet and greet in North Charleston on Thursday.
Fellow South Carolinian, U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), seemed to fade into the scenery at the first debate. His nice guy approach — no act, according to those who know the candidate best — failed to register in a heated debate frequently devolving into a yelling match.
“He didn’t do poorly, he just wasn’t relevant,” Graul said. Irrelevance isn’t a winning quality in a debate, however.
Scott has proven to be increasingly relevant in early nominating states where it matters much. A recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll found Scott running in third place among Iowa voters, with 9 percent, although that poll included a greater anti-Trump universe of voters, including Democrats who have attended caucuses. A Trafalgar Group poll earlier this month showed Scott trailing DeSantis by just 3 percentage points (16% to 19%) in the race for second place, both lagging far behind Trump.
The South Carolina senator will most likely continue to push his social and conservative message while mostly staying in the nice guy lane, pundits say.
Former Vice President Mike Pence fell into the better-than-expected camp, asserting and insinuating himself into much of the debate. He doubled down on his mostly unconditional support for Ukraine, despite a growing number of conservatives objecting to increased U.S. military funding. He aggressively played out his growing strategy to go after Ramaswamy on his youth and lack of political experience. And he grew more demanding that everyone on the debate stage declare his patriotism in rejecting Trump’s requests he not certify the results of the 2020 election and send the disputed results back to the states. Pence’s rhetorical gymnastics included walking a very precarious political line between taking credit and celebrating the “Trump/Pence” administration, and repudiating his former boss for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I think Mike Pence actually was a more central figure than I expected going into it,” Graul said. “With Pence there was nothing amazing or terrible, he was just more engaged and more involved in more moments than I thought he would going in. I thought the opposite of Governor DeSantis.”
The Pence campaign insists the former vice president was so much more.
“Last night, Mike Pence showed that he is the only candidate ready to be President on Day One. While others faded into the background, Pence took command of the debate, forcefully articulated his clear, conservative vision, and stood strong for the Constitution,” his campaign declared on Thursday.
The campaign released a “strategy memo” from Pence campaign manager Steve DeMaura, who asserts the pathway to the nomination is tapping into Trump leery and Never Trump Republicans who want someone else. Pence believes he’s the alternative who can win. So does everybody else in the crowded field of Republican candidates, by the way.
“The pathway to defeating President Trump is clear, but the eventual challenger to the former president must demonstrate longevity, viability, experience, and, above all, leadership. Vice President Pence stands alone in this regard,” DeMaura wrote.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie mostly stayed in his lane of Trump-bashing, a strategy that has seemingly helped him in first primary state New Hampshire, if nowhere else.
Graul said it’s only a matter of time before Christie, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum are forced to bow out of the race. While Burgum may have won a few pity points for showing up to the debate after suffering a high-grade tear of his Achilles tendon playing a game of pick-up basketball with his staff the night before. But Graul predicts he’ll be the first to leave the race, despite the billionaire’s ability to self-fund.
“Hutchinson is running for a different reason, a platform to talk about Trump’s issues. The same as Chris Christie,” the political strategist said. “Christie and Hutchinson both know they’re not going to be the president of the United States but they want a platform to talk about Trump, so it’s hard to predict when they’re going to drop out.”
Graul said success or failure on the first debate stage is short-lived. It’s a piece of the puzzle, but the ground game in the early nominating states is key.
“What they need to do is continue to grow their campaigns, their support in those early states first and foremost,” he said. “They need to raise money. You’ve got to have funds to be relevant.”
“Frankly, at this stage of the game you’ve got to wait for something to happen with former President Trump to change the dynamics right now, because the dynamics right now is President Trump being the nominee,” he added, noting Trump’s 40-plus point lead in the national polls.
Trump, by the way, declared victory in the debate despite skipping it. He didn’t wait for the debate to begin to do so.
“President Trump has already won this evening’s debate because everything is going to be about him,” Trump senior adviser Chris LaCivita said in a statement. “Only President Trump has the policy ideas, the fortitude, and the polling to go head-to-head with Crooked Joe Biden n the general election. Republican voters recognize this, hence President Trump’s 62-16 lead in the GOP primary.”
It’s looking unlikely, at least for now, that Trump will be on the next debate stage, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, set for Sept. 27.
“As everyone is aware, my Poll numbers, over a ‘wonderful’ field of Republican candidates, are extraordinary. In fact, I am leading the runner up, whoever that may now be, by more than 50 Points,” he wrote on Truth Social, his social media platform, before the Milwaukee debate.
“Reagan didn’t do it, and neither did others. People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate? I’M YOUR MAN. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Vivek Ramaswamy” by Vivek Ramaswamy.