Second GOP primary debate
Republican candidates for president prepare to debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, on September 27, 2023. Photo credit: © Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press Wire

For the first time, some of Donald Trump’s rivals, specifically Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, figured out how to launch effective attacks against him.

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Wednesday night’s Republican debate did not produce a definitive winner, just a clear loser: Donald Trump.

That might not matter in the large scheme of things because the former president’s lead over the field is so massive, and GOP voters are so enthralled by him. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the second debate will materially change the trajectory of the race… after all, Trump being charged with 91 felonies didn’t.

However, for the first time, it looked as though some of his rivals, specifically Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, figured out how to launch effective attacks against him.

To get under Trump’s skin, you have to ridicule him, and to appeal to his voters, you have to make them understand that they mean nothing to the former president.

Christie and DeSantis did both.

Both of them called Trump a coward for not debating. Christie came up with a new nickname for the former president, Donald Duck, which has a good chance of sticking. And DeSantis insinuated that it was disrespectful to voters for him not to show up.

“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight,” the Florida governor said. “He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt, that set the stage for the inflation that we have now.”

What’s interesting, yet not surprising, is which part of DeSantis’s attack resonated with voters.

It’s not that Trump increased the national debt by more than any other president in a single term, or that his fiscal policies, along with those of many other world leaders, during the coronavirus pandemic set the stage for high inflation across the globe. To reality-challenged Republican voters, those facts mean nothing.

However, what did resonate was the argument that Trump, who claims to be a man of the people, owed it to them to show up at the debates.

“It’s disrespectful that he didn’t come to try to earn Iowans votes, because so many people’s votes are still up for grabs,” said one Iowa woman who was part of a CNN focus group following the debate.

Again, ultimately, there is a very good chance that none of this will matter. However, if Trump’s rivals want to close the huge gap in the race, they have to needle the former president and get under his famously thin skin.

That is what takes him out of his comfort zone of being the bully, the one who makes silly nicknames and who controls the narrative.

And then, the other candidates have to hope that the chasm between themselves and Trump will narrow. It just has to be a bit at first but enough for the poll-focused frontrunner to notice.

In politics, perception is reality (especially when somebody like the former president can just make up his own reality that people will believe), and that is one of the reasons why Trump seems unbeatable at this stage.

But let the gap come down a bit, and all of a sudden the race for the GOP nomination might just become a bit more interesting.

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