From the Center

It is widely agreed that Donald Trump won last week’s Republican primary debate by not being there. The other GOP candidates did not expend much firepower on him in his absence, which allowed the party’s frontrunner to emerge unscathed – and possibly enhanced. And the timing of his surrender at the Fulton County jail the following day eclipsed most of the post-debate analysis that normally provides momentum for candidates under more typical circumstances.

But because the former president wasn’t on the debate stage, we had our first opportunity to see what a post-Trump Republican Party might look like. Whether that future arrives next year or in 2028 is impossible to know, but the eight candidates on stage presented a clear choice for the path that their party might take when its long-time standard-bearer steps aside.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old multimillionaire who was the most visible and pugnacious presence of the evening, provided an emphatic reminder that Trumpism will not necessarily depart with its namesake. Through his unabashed embrace of the frontrunner and his expansive presence throughout the evening, Ramaswamy stole the  “Almost Trump” role that Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been working to claim for the last several months. But it was clear from listening to both men that those who have been assuming that the GOP will soon be returning to its pre-Trump identity anytime soon are not listening to grassroots conservative activists or primary voters.

But the fight over whether Trump’s allies and acolytes prevail will not be settled quickly or easily. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley were the most noticeable advocates for a traditional brand of Republicanism, and they pushed back at Ramaswamy frequently throughout the debate. Chris Christie also represented a pre-Trump approach, but without Trump himself on hand to attack in person, the former New Jersey governor never quite settled in.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson have staked out their claims as old-school conservatives throughout the campaign, but neither drew much notice during the debate. Similarly and more curiously, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who has been the subject of increasing speculation as a potential Trump alternative in recent weeks, espoused his trademark Reagan-style optimism but also made little impact over the course of the program.

The other low-impact bystander was DeSantis. He has spent most of the year with one foot in each camp, attempting to out-Trump Trump on some issues and appeal to mainstream conservative voters and donors on the other. Under a bright spotlight, it became clear that DeSantis is going to need to choose a side at some point, as his equivocations on the war in Ukraine, a federal abortion ban, climate change, and even Pence’s actions on January 6 made the Florida governor look either insincere or evasive. The most glaring example of this tendency toward on-one-handedness came just past the debate’s midpoint, when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump in a general election if he were convicted of any of the crimes of which he is being charged. DeSantis carefully and noticeably looked to see which of his competitors had their hands in the air before raising his own.

But the Pence/Haley/Christie vs Ramaswamy arguments were much more meaningful, as they battled over a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. Most memorable was their confrontation over the U.S. role in the world, when Haley lectured Ramaswamy on the importance of maintaining support for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. The encounter demonstrated the growing clout of populist isolationism among conservatives in the Trump-era party, and clashes like this one and equally deep disagreements on budget and economic issues, on the role of government in society, and on broader cultural and attitudinal questions about the American people and our future will define the GOP in the years ahead.

There’s no way to know whether Trump will maintain his current dominance over the field to next year’s party convention, whether he can win another general election, or how the Republican Party will move forward in his absence. But it is more apparent than ever that his imprint on the party will not fade, no matter how his own story concludes. But the non-Trump conservatives who have survived his years in power see an opportunity for a comeback. And both wings of the GOP are prepared for an all-out war that will continue long after next year’s election has been decided.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).