The Republican Presidential candidates not named Donald Trump squared off for the second time on Wednesday, and they put on a good show that gave voters an insight into how they think and what they believe. But their main oversight continues to be that with rare exceptions they are giving Mr. Trump a pass.
The candidates are all fighting to become the alternative to Mr. Trump, who is leading in the polls by 30 or more points over his nearest challenger. They are looking to stand out from the pack, and that means promoting their records and making a contrast with the others on the stage. The debate over Ukraine was especially revealing, and we elaborate on that nearby.
But all of them also court irrelevance if they can’t cut into Mr. Trump’s commanding lead. And no one is going to become a credible alternative fighting about curtains at the United Nations. Sooner or later the candidates have to persuade voters that they would be better as the Republican nominee than Mr. Trump, with a better chance of winning and then governing for four years more effectively than the chaotic former President.
Yet there was precious little contrast with Mr. Trump on stage Wednesday night at the Reagan presidential library. The main exceptions were Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis, who hit Mr. Trump for not showing up to debate. Mr. Christie was effective on the point that Mr. Trump’s absence shows disrespect for voters, while Mr. DeSantis scored by noting that the former President doesn’t want to appear and have to defend his recent comments criticizing the Florida Governor for signing the state’s ban on abortion after six weeks.
The only other significant argument against Mr. Trump and his record was Nikki Haley’s riff on what Mr. Trump didn’t do about China during his four years in office. He focused on the economy and trade, she said, but he failed on security issues that were becoming more perilous on his watch. We’d add to her list letting China consolidate its gains in the South China Sea, failing to arm Taiwan, and doing too little to rebuild the Navy.
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Vivek Ramaswamy’s strategy is to call Mr. Trump an “excellent” President and then suggest he’ll transcend him by uniting the party. The implication is that Mr. Trump is driven too much by grievance and anger, but Mr. Ramaswamy seems unwilling to say this explicitly lest he offend Mr. Trump’s supporters. It’s almost as if Mr. Ramaswamy is betting that he could inherit Mr. Trump’s voters if the former President were convicted of one or more of the 91 felony charges he is facing.
No doubt the candidates are wary of offending MAGA voters. But it’s possible to challenge Mr. Trump’s record without sounding like the left-wing scolds at CNN or MSNBC. One obvious way is to describe his losing election record since 2016. Another is to draw policy distinctions. Taking on Mr. Trump might also be the best way to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate the fighting spirit that GOP voters say they want in a nominee.
Perhaps the moderators at the next debate will pose the question of Mr. Trump more assertively to the candidates. He’s the elephant not in the room, and it is no service to voters to ignore him until a week before the Iowa caucuses in January.