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The Right Resistance: Not-Trump Republicans meet in Alabama tonight, search for an audience

On the morning of the fourth scheduled Republican presidential primary candidates’ debate (Tonight at 8 p.m., sponsored by Newsnation, The Megyn Kelly Show on SiriusXM, The Washington Free Beacon & Rumble, Moderated by Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Vargas & Eliana

Johnson), a question: If a not-Trump Republican candidate speaks to a non-existent TV audience, does he or she still make a sound? Or, does he or she still have a chance to win the nomination?

Tonight’s event could reveal part of the answer, as the absurdity that has been and become the 2024 GOP presidential nomination race continues unabated in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when four of the surviving not-Trump candidates meet, like the full group did in late August, September and last month, to hash over the issues that are supposedly important to the conservative grassroots.

Seeing as the Iowa caucuses are only a little over a month away and a fifth such “official” GOP forum (minus the candidate who really matters) has not yet been placed on the calendar, many ask, “Is this the last one?” Anyone in former president Donald Trump’s orbit would reply that there shouldn’t have been a first debate, second one or third one – much less this fourth iteration – but the Republican powers-that-be would look awful silly if they bowed to anything Trump said at this point. They have to maintain some semblance of authority, right?

You can’t just defy Ronna McDaniel and the boys n’ girls at party headquarters and get away with it, correct?

Nevertheless, there will be a show tonight in blood red Alabama, and now, as of this writing, only four of the still alive Republican hopefuls will be there to take part. (Note: North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum finally gave up the ghost this week, so that narrows things down!)

You’ll no doubt recognize them if you watched all or part of the first three programs, since they appear to be inching closer to the center of the lectern line and the flanks have all-but disappeared. Who can recall the hope and dreams of the candidates in August, some of whom must’ve thought their “breakout” moment was in the works, and they would rocket to the top of the GOP nomination line-up as soon as interested Americans grasped how great they were?

Since the last “debate” (in Miami, Florida), South Carolina Senator Tim Scott opted to cease campaign operations rather than staying with his good-intentions bid, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie almost achieved the impossible by figuring out a way to make himself disappear. In the latter rotund man’s example, he was added at the last moment, supposedly having met the national poll debate criteria – or maybe the establishment just wanted the purist anti-Trump voice to give it another go.

As far as Trump goes, he won’t be idle while his few fellow Republicans are talking behind his back in Alabama. No, he’ll be at a private fundraiser in Florida. Trump did do a townhall-type event with Fox News’s Sean Hannity hosting last night in Iowa. Here’s thinking the Hannity audience will turn out to be at least equal in numbers to the “official” event tonight, the lack of national party promotion notwithstanding.

There is one aspect of tonight’s debate that should be of interest to political aficionados searching for a tidbit of scintillating news to make the two-hour back-and-forth worth viewing. Former Fox News personality and one-time Trump foe Megyn Kelly will be the chief moderator, and she promises to press the candidates hard and leave with no friends!

“Despite the feud ignited [with Trump in 2015 by the debate she moderated], Kelly isn't afraid to keep asking the tough questions. ‘You've got to throw fastballs, which is what I intend to do,’ she said.

“That feud, however, has since been resolved, as evidenced by Kelly's recent sit-down interview with the former president on his 2024 campaign. ‘I wish he would come,’ Kelly said of Trump's decision to skip GOP primary debates. ‘I think he would have fun. Of course, we would have very hard questions for him. But as he's proven, he can handle those,’ she continued...

“One issue that has become increasingly important to Kelly is transgender policy, coupled with women's and girls' spaces in society. It has similarly become more of a concern among Republicans, who are particularly opposed to its ushering in the use of drugs and surgery on minors to alter their hormones and genitalia. Despite its importance to many Republicans, transgender policy hasn't been given a large spotlight in the past three debates. The problem is so significant for Kelly that she calls it ‘the women's rights issue of our time.’”

Kelly’s right-on there. The transgender pseudo-issue dominates the national cultural discourse, and it will be interesting to hear what the candidates have to say about it. It’s also good that Kelly promises to throw “fastballs” to the contestants, since we’ve seen enough off-speed “junk” pitches from the moderators of the first three shows to last an entire campaign season.

Kelly adds some intrigue to an otherwise mundane-sounding line-up, the three contestants having been seen together enough to know that the substantive fireworks will be kept to a minimum. It’s always possible that Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy will fall into another tiff over a side issue, and Haley will almost certainly step up her assaults on DeSantis’s practically impeccable Florida record, but what else is there to make tonight’s “debate” sound remarkable?

Trump himself is going about his business, seemingly planning his schedule to get his name in the news for something other than legal proceedings but not stepping over his intra-party competitors – and president senile Joe Biden – who are doing a fine job of allowing him to lay relatively low and permit his leads (both in the primary and general election) to grow without much interference.

Kelly is probably correct in suggesting that Trump would like to participate in these debates – and that he’d have fun – but his apparent strategy of staying out of them is definitely paying dividends. In this, Trump gets a two-fer: he doesn’t risk the possibility that he’d say something the establishment media could twist into a damaging soundbite while he also gets his name mentioned plenty of times by the other Republicans and debate moderators.

Of course, by all appearances, questions regarding Trump’s potential electability have started to fade, to the point where even proven Trump-doubters like commentator Kurt Schlichter are admitting that the two-time Republican candidate could win. Trump’s national lead over senile Joe has grown in the past couple months, so it’s generally accepted that he’s got a legitimate shot to earn a second term next November.

Which means if the voters themselves eliminate the electability conundrum from their criteria in assessing the 2024 Republican field, what is there left to sustain the campaigns of DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy? I don’t think Chris Christie was ever serious in insisting that he ran against Trump to beat him, so he deserves no mention here.

It could easily be argued that the one big “prize” left to be determined is Trump’s vice president pick, with all of the not-Trump candidates still in the running – or at least deserving of vetting by the Trump folks behind the scenes. Here’s thinking that Ron DeSantis wouldn’t agree to overtures from Trump to be the frontrunner’s next-in-line, believing that his current status as governor of the most up-and-coming state (Florida) provides a greater platform for his political future than going to Washington and having little or no say-so on the agenda.

Nikki Haley denies it, but she almost certainly is continuing her presidential run to build a case for her own possible veep candidacy. She’s been making the media rounds touting polls that show her with an even bigger lead over senile Joe than Trump enjoys, but this, like so many other facets of her being, is an illusion.

First off, since every candidate, more or less, enjoys a period of ascendence followed by a much longer length of time descending in popularity, it’s likely that Haley’s already reached her peak. For about a month now, many in the Never Trump crowd, ever desperate to find an alternative to the former president, have taken long looks at Nikki to see if she possesses the right stuff to go for the long term. Americans for Prosperity endorsed her.

Tonight’s debate could solve the dilemma, but, if Haley doesn’t get a massive shot of momentum from her “performance” in Alabama, she’s probably destined to slowly dwindle from this point forward.

Think of Haley as a helium balloon that could fly to the heavens once it’s filled, but can’t stay aloft unless there is more gas added. Nikki has most likely exhausted her supply – and there isn’t much she can offer conservatives to maintain her viability. Her illusory candidacy is based on perpetuating the ruse that Trump isn’t electable, and that her gender and experience lends itself to being his best alternative.

And, after nicknaming her “Birdbrain”, Trump isn’t thinking about Haley for his vice president, either.

Vivek Ramaswamy has thus far been Haley’s debate antagonist, highlighting her connections to the establishment – and her biases. Trump, in the past, has mentioned that Ramaswamy would make for a good running mate, but the Ohioan’s failure to catch fire beyond his indefinable base limits his upside. As I’ve argued before, Ramaswamy has a promising future in politics, if he wants to keep at it, but these debates may be his final moments in the sun for this cycle.

Gov. Ron DeSantis took an opportunity to make a fool out of California Governor Gavin Newsom last week, demonstrating his firm grasp on policy and setting himself as a potential leader in years to come. Like with Haley, Trump’s jabs at DeSantis likely disqualify him as a 2024 MAGA running mate. Ron will run through Iowa and the other early states, then withdraw and endorse Trump. What else is there to do?

It's difficult to say what kind of audience tonight’s fourth GOP debate will attract. Most conservatives have seemingly accepted that Trump is the going-away frontrunner, and it’s hard to see how a couple hours of additional exposure from this forum will benefit any of the remaining not-Trump candidates. If a not-Trump candidate says something and there’s nobody there to hear it, there isn’t much of a sound, indeed.

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