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The GOP Survivor Problem
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The GOP Survivor Problem

The second Republican presidential primary debate was even more chaotic than the first.

Happy Thursday! It’s been a rough year for U.S.-China relations, but this may be the final straw: Beijing is recalling its loaner pandas that have been the highlights of American zoos for 50 years. 

Get your fix of the panda cam now, folks.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories 

  • The U.S. suspended some of its non-humanitarian aid to Gabon following the military takeover in the central African nation last month. The State Department announced Tuesday the U.S. “is pausing certain foreign assistance programs benefiting the government of Gabon while we evaluate the unconstitutional intervention by members of the country’s military.” Some aid to Niger has also been suspended, but U.S. officials have yet to formally designate the takeovers in both countries as coups. 
  • Chinese hackers stole 60,000 emails from the State Department when they breached a Microsoft email system in late spring, according to information shared in a classified Senate briefing Wednesday. The emails were lifted from 10 State Department accounts, nine of which belonged to individuals who work on East Asia and the Pacific. The hack also affected the Commerce Department, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
  • Travis King—the American soldier who has been detained in North Korea since July after he intentionally ran across the North Korean border on a tour of the demilitarized zone—is in U.S. custody in China and will soon be en route back to the United States,  U.S. officials said Wednesday. Pyongyang had earlier signaled its intention to “expel” King from the country. Pentagon officials said King would be transferred to a military hospital in Texas. 
  • New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and his wife pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to bribery charges. The couple was released on bond, but the court confiscated Sen. Menendez’s personal passport, ordering he could only travel out of the country on official business and with prior notification to the court. The three New Jersey businessmen accused of bribing Menendez also pleaded not guilty in hearings Tuesday and Wednesday. 

The Search for a Trump Challenger Continues

Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With five minutes left in the broadcast of last night’s second Republican presidential debate, Fox Business moderator Dana Perino said the quiet part out loud. “It’s now obvious that if you all stay in the race, former President Donald Trump wins the nomination,” she told the seven assembled candidates on the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. “None of you have indicated that you’re dropping out.” 

But rather than have any of them make the case that they should be the one to take on Trump, or give candidates an opportunity to express—as several had in the previous 115 minutes—their frustration at their party’s standard-bearer for playing hooky from the proceedings, she took a different tack. “So which one of you on stage tonight should be voted off the island?” Perino asked, to uproarious laughter from the candidates and audience alike. That laughter turned awkward—and the candidates’ faces confused, and then indignant—when she asked them all to write another candidate’s name on a provided notepad, à la Survivor

It seemed like the only thing (almost) all seven could agree on last night was that there was no way, no how they would be playing that game. But the bizarre moment wasn’t the first time the event had felt more like a reality TV program than a substantive debate on the issues—Perino at one point shouted “cue the music” over the din of the candidates sniping at each other as she tried to cut to a commercial break. Chaos reigned in Southern California Wednesday night, with an abundance of internecine fighting. Very little of it was focused on real policy differences, and almost none of it offered any additional clarity on which candidate might pose the most significant challenge to Trump, the far-and-away frontrunner, as the clock ticks down to the Iowa caucuses in January. 

As the original premise of Perino’s question suggested, the GOP primary is fast becoming a “tragedy of the commons” problem fit for an economics textbook. Trump is up more than 40 points nationally on the second-place candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In Iowa—where voters will make their choice for the first time in just under four months—DeSantis trails the former president by more than 30 points. At least for now, it’s still in each candidate’s individual interest to stay in, even as their collective continued presence in the race eats away at any chance for one of them to make a real run at the former president. 

Trump, doing that math himself, was not on the stage last night, speaking instead at a non-union auto parts plant in Clinton Township, Michigan—a fact that didn’t go unaddressed by the candidates. Unsurprisingly, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the first to call out the former president’s absence. “Donald Trump hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer,” he said, in response to a question about a looming government shutdown. “He put seven trillion [dollars] on the debt, he should be in this room to answer those questions for the people you talk about who are suffering.” In the same exchange on government spending, DeSantis echoed Christie’s attack on Trump’s record. “Donald Trump is missing in action,” he said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added 7.8 trillion [dollars] to the debt—that set the stage for the inflation that we have now.” 

“Gov. DeSantis shows up,” Andrew Romeo, DeSantis’ communications director, told The Dispatch in the post-debate spin room last night. “He gets the job done. He’s not afraid to defend his record—it’s the best part about him.” DeSantis was more assertive Wednesday than at last month’s debate, highlighting his policy wins in the Florida governor’s mansion on issues Republicans care about, education in particular. “We didn’t just talk about universal school choice—we enacted universal school choice,” he said. “We didn’t just talk about the parents’ bill of rights—we enacted the parents’ bill of rights. We eliminated critical race theory, and we now have American civics and the constitution in our schools in a really big way.” 

“I’m the only one up here who’s gotten in the big fights and has delivered big victories for the people of Florida and that’s what it’s all about,” he added later in the night. 

While DeSantis, for the most part, beat the drum of his own effectiveness, others felt the pressure to take on their challengers. Several of the candidates—most notably, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott—had their knives out for each other, trying to land sound bite-worthy strikes. The moderators were happy to go along, asking Scott to address his answer as to why he should be president instead of Haley directly to his fellow South Carolinian. As governor of the state, Haley initially appointed Scott to his Senate seat to fill a vacancy in 2013. 

After Scott highlighted his economic plans, Haley tried to hit him on his record. “He’s been there 12 years [in the Senate], and he hasn’t done any of that,” she claimed. Scott returned the favor a few minutes later, knocking Haley on her past support for a South Carolina gas tax. In perhaps the most transparent opposition research dump of the night, Scott brought up $50,000 curtains that hung in Haley’s residence while serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Haley has long said they predated her tenure). “Talk about someone who’s never seen a federal dollar she doesn’t like,” Scott said. Haley, who wore a big smile, interjected, “Bring it, Tim,” in the middle of the exchange. 

There was at least one other thing nearly all the candidates on stage could unite around: their shared dislike of Vivek Ramaswamy. Perhaps in response to focus group results, the billionaire turned anti-woke crusader initially tried a far less combative approach than the previous debate, where he declared his rivals were “bought and paid for.” Early in the evening, Ramaswamy called for unity among the candidates, saying the real divide was not among Republicans but between a majority of the country who believe in free speech and meritocracy and the “fringe minority” in the Democratic party. “These are good people on this stage,” he said. 

Those good people weren’t having any of it. Scott knocked Ramaswamy on his past business ties with China, prompting the would-be peacemaker to amend his olive branch: “These are good people who are tainted by a broken system.” Then, all hell broke loose as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Scott, and DeSantis piled on. Later in the debate, Haley’s criticism of Vivek was even more blunt. “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she said. “We can’t trust you.” Most of the field joined in again to knock Ramaswamy for his attacks at the previous debate. 

But candidate sniping aside, the second debate raised the same question that haunted the first. Do debates even matter aside from providing a spectacle for hacks and flacks to parse? Recent national polls showing Trump and Biden in a dead heat (with some even showing a Trump victory over Biden) have discredited the GOP challengers’ best argument against Trump: He’s unelectable. But while Trump’s sizable lead makes him the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination, the debates are still part of the winnowing process to produce the “consensus” challenger to Trump, if that’s possible. “Voters need these debates so that they can make the decision of who we’re gonna choose,” David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist, told TMD ahead of the debate. 

There are some indications that the early state contests are at least potentially winnable for a Trump challenger. A CBS News and YouGov poll of likely Iowa and New Hampshire voters this week found that a strong majority of respondents in both states are either not considering Trump at all or are considering the other candidates along with Trump—only 20 percent in Iowa and 23 percent in New Hampshire are “only” considering the former president. “I know people think it’s getting late, but it’s not,” Kochel argues. “There’s 40 days between Iowa and South Carolina. That’s the longest period of time between the first carve-out contest and the last carve-out contest that we’ve ever had. And that’s got to be the time where you get the field down to Trump and one other person.” 

Between now and January, big donors will be looking to consolidate behind a single Trump alternative. And some are reportedly giving Haley a hard look after a strong performance at the first debate and a bump in the polls—and her good showing last night likely strengthened her case to be the consensus candidate. Several wealthy Texas donors will host fundraisers for Haley next month, including donors who have previously given to DeSantis. A lack of funds is usually the reason why candidates drop out when they drop out, and the third quarter fundraising reports, due to be disclosed by October 15, will provide a better picture of which campaigns have the money to go the distance. The Koch network is reportedly waiting until after the reports are released to pick a candidate to support. 

The third debate—which will take place in Miami on November 8—could also help narrow the field even earlier than Iowa. The Republican National Committee upped the eligibility requirements to include having 70,000 unique donors and hitting four percent in national polling. The thresholds could potentially block candidates like Scott, Christie, and former Vice President Mike Pence from the stage. 

“The party is trying to figure out which one of these candidates they want to send into battle head-to-head with Donald Trump,” Kochel says, “because if it’s six people all the way through to Super Tuesday, Trump’s the nominee, and there’s no point.” 

Worth Your Time

  • Several high-profile authors are suing Meta for using the text of their books to train its generative AI model, potentially in violation of copyright law. Ian Bogost, whose books were among those used by Meta, doesn’t understand the outrage. “I’d joined the ranks of the aggrieved,” he writes in a piece for the Atlantic, upon discovering that his books fed the AI machine. “But then, despite some effort, I found myself disappointingly unaggrieved. What on earth was wrong with me? Authors who are angry—authors who are effing furious—have pointed to the fact that their work was used without permission. Whether or not Meta’s behavior amounts to infringement is a matter for the courts to decide. Permission is a different matter. One of the facts (and pleasures) of authorship is that one’s work will be used in unpredictable ways. The philosopher Jacques Derrida liked to talk about ‘dissemination,’ which I take to mean that, like a plant releasing its seed, an author separates from their published work. Their readers (or viewers, or listeners) not only can but must make sense of that work in different contexts. A retiree cracks a Haruki Murakami novel recommended by a grandchild. A high-school kid skims Shakespeare for a class. My mother’s tree trimmer reads my book on play at her suggestion. A lack of permission underlies all of these uses, as it underlies influence in general: When successful, art exceeds its creator’s plans. To bemoan this one unexpected use for my writing is to undermine all of the other unexpected uses for it. Speaking as a writer, that makes me feel bad.”

Presented Without Comment

Insider: Latino lawmakers dismiss Sen. Bob Menendez’s claims that he’s being racially targeted: ‘This is not that’ 

“Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar of California—the current House Democratic Caucus chair and the highest-ranking Latino in the House—said as much on Wednesday morning … ‘Latinos face barriers and discrimination across the board in so many categories, including in our justice system. This is not that,’ said Aguilar. ‘We should not conflate the discrimination, and the issues, and the barriers that Latinos have in the justice system, and across industries too, to what we see there today.’”

Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: [Former New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie Sends Message to Trump: ‘We’re Gonna Call You ‘Donald Duck’

Also Also Presented Without Comment 

Washington Examiner: Republican Debate Takes Bizarre Twist Over Who is ‘Sleeping’ with Teachers

Toeing the Company Line 

  • In the newsletters: Scott argues the UAW’s demands run contrary to economic realities, the Dispatch Politics team examines Nikki Haley’s prospects as a consensus candidate ahead of last night’s debate, Jonah bemoans (🔒) the shamelessness of American politicians, and Nick parses (🔒) how much credit we should give Democrats condemning Bob Menendez. 
  • On the podcasts: Sarah is back from maternity leave and joins David at Georgetown University for a live taping of Advisory Opinions where they preview the Supreme Court’s upcoming term, while Jonah is joined on the Remnant by Brink Lindsey to discuss social policy, libertarianism, and the role of intellectualism in shaping society. 
  • On the site today: Philip Wallach dives into the shutdown showdown and Kay S. Hymowitz explains the results of a recent Pew survey on marriage and family. 

Let Us Know

Do you think the debate last night mattered? Did it change your opinion of any of the candidates on stage?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.