Was anyone on the Republican debate stage Wednesday night even trying to beat Donald J. Trump? Sometimes, it didn’t seem like it.
Even in his absence, no candidate laid a meaningful blow on Mr. Trump. No one other than Chris Christie even really tried.
Better still for Mr. Trump, the most intense discussions centered on two issues — aid to Ukraine and the events of Jan. 6, 2021 — that divide Mr. Trump’s potential opposition rather than offer any opportunity to unify it. Ron DeSantis, his strongest opponent, steered clear of those fights and often faded into the background. Put it together, and Mr. Trump might have been the big winner.
But with Mr. Trump at once maintaining an overwhelming lead in the primary polls and facing multiple criminal indictments, there’s a case that the likeliest path to beating him has nothing to do with a conventional win on the debate stage. Instead, it might involve jockeying for second place today, in hopes of capitalizing should Mr. Trump crumble under the weight of his legal challenges in the coming months.
Judged against that second-place strategy, Mr. DeSantis’s debate performance makes more sense. It can be interpreted as much like that of a front-runner — in this case, a front-runner in the race for second.
It’s important to caution that just because Mr. DeSantis’s tactics followed a reasonable strategy doesn’t necessarily mean his performance was “good.” To the extent his performance was still underwhelming, even though it may have been strategic, it betrays the deep challenges facing the DeSantis campaign. Even so, it helps make sense of what we saw onstage.
Before we get too far into Wednesday’s debate, let’s start with a simple rule of thumb for judging presidential debaters: A strong candidate doesn’t necessarily need to do much, but weak candidates should hope to make a big splash.
Take Joe Biden. In a hypothetical Democratic debate, he would be perfectly content to “hang back” and “end up on the periphery,” as my colleagues Shane Goldmacher, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman wrote of Mr. DeSantis’s showing.
On the other hand, consider a relatively unknown candidate like Doug Burgum — the North Dakota governor whom you may or may not have noticed in the debate. This debate might have been his one and only opportunity to gain his footing in the race. In the end, he didn’t make a splash; now he might fade away and may not qualify for the next debate.
How does Mr. DeSantis fit into this rubric? Well, in one respect he’s more like Mr. Burgum than Mr. Biden: He trails Mr. Trump by roughly 40 percentage points nationally and he’s been sliding in the polls for six months. He absolutely could have used a commanding performance to help revitalize his campaign and earn some momentum.
If Mr. DeSantis’s performance is judged against whether he can reverse his slide and start a comeback against Mr. Trump, he may as well have been standing on the sidelines. He avoided taking on Mr. Trump. He didn’t have a memorable sound bite. Meanwhile, his rivals stole the show. Worse, they may have helped fracture the potential opposition to Mr. Trump along factional lines, as the likes of Mr. Christie, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley faced off against Vivek Ramaswamy on issues like Jan. 6 and Ukraine.
But if we judge Mr. DeSantis against a second-place strategy, his performance looks somewhat different. His decision to avoid fights over Ukraine and Jan. 6 now looks like a deft effort to avoid dividing his potential supporters. No, he didn’t go after Mr. Trump, but in pulling his punches he avoided alienating voters who like the former president. Indeed, almost everything he said was broadly appealing to Republicans.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. DeSantis seemed to come out of the debate entirely unscathed: No one seriously attacked him at all. If anyone had done so, one wonders whether Mr. DeSantis’s performance might have appeared quite different.
As it was, it would have been a fine showing for a front-runner, and perhaps that’s exactly how we should think of Mr. DeSantis from the standpoint of a second-place strategy. After all, he entered the debate in second place in high-quality polls and he’s always been the clear second choice of Mr. Trump’s supporters.
Of course, just because a strategy is sensible doesn’t mean it comes without risks. To the extent Mr. Ramaswamy stole the show, his consistently conservative-populist views might help him become a new second choice of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters. He could even leapfrog Mr. DeSantis in the polls; there’s a long history of relatively unknown Republican candidates surging after flashy debate performances, including Herman Cain (the 2012 cycle) and Ben Carson (the 2016 cycle).
And just because a strategy was the best available option for Mr. DeSantis doesn’t make it a great strategy. While Mr. DeSantis’s decision to stay out of fights over divisive issues may have been sensible, there didn’t appear to be any fights he could pick and win. It betrays the extent to which Mr. DeSantis has struggled to find an issue or message that’s powerful enough to consolidate the potential opposition to Mr. Trump.
At the beginning of the year, it wasn’t obvious that Mr. DeSantis would struggle to find anything to talk about. It seemed he had figured out how to unify conservative and moderate skeptics of Mr. Trump by attacking coronavirus restrictions and the “woke” left — two issues that dominated conservative politics over the last few years. As recently as six months ago, “woke” seemed so ubiquitous in conservative messaging that I wrote, “I’d be surprised if we make it out of the opening statements of the first primary debate without hearing it.”
In the end, it was 1 hour 42 minutes before anyone said “woke.” The issues that made Mr. DeSantis a front-runner appear to have faded; now, he’s trying to coast to victory on good will accrued from earlier battles. It may be the best he can do under the circumstances, but it’s hardly a show of strength.