At Republican debate, DeSantis lands some jabs, but still won’t answer that Trump question | Opinion

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If debates still matter at this point — when the frontrunner refuses to show up and still leads national polls by 40-plus points — Wednesday’s debate should have been make or break for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

With six weeks to go before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, DeSantis did what DeSantis does: He jumped at every opportunity to talk about culture wars, like gender-affirming care and bathroom bills; he repeated, “There’s going to be a new sheriff in town” a couple of times and defended his proposal to shoot people crossing the southern border if they are suspected drug dealers.

Aside from his his usual awkward smiling — is it a grin or a grimace? — DeSantis had a decent night at the debate in Alabama, moderated by NewsNation and Fox News alumna Megyn Kelly. The problem for the governor is that focus of many GOP voters, donors and other candidates — chief among them the obnoxious conspiracy theorist Vivek Ramaswamy — has been Nikki Haley.

The former South Carolina governor is on the rise, buoyed by her previous strong debate appearances and support from wealthy donors like the uber-wealthy Koch network. DeSantis, whose campaign has been in turmoil, appears to have peaked too early, as he was doing better in the polls before he officially jumped in the GOP primary.

DeSantis gave good answers on Israel. He tried to land jabs against Haley by saying she would “cave to those big donors,” even though he, too has raised millions from big-pocketed GOP donors. He rightfully blamed both parties for contributing to the national debt and vowed to bring down student loans by holding universities more accountable, though he couldn’t resist the urge to blame the issue on colleges providing too many degrees in “ideological studies” and not the exorbitant costs of higher education.

He had to answer why Americans should trust him with healthcare when his own state has some of the highest rates of uninsured people. He gave an answer full of vague talking points about bringing medical costs down, much like he did when asked how he would replace the Affordable Care Act during an NBC interview over the weekend.

Haley, too, went on the offense, but refused at times to engage with the juvenile attacks by Ramaswamy, who wrote “Nikki=Corrupt” on his note pad and held it up for the cameras. She called DeSantis “hypocritical” when he criticized her for saying social media companies should verify people’s identity before allowing them to write comments. She said DeSantis is no the defender of the right of anonymous voices to exercise free speech. He pushed a bill that would have clamped down on the use of anonymous sources and made it easier to sue journalists for defamation.

The bickering and back-and-forth between the candidates doesn’t matter when none of them — with the exception of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — acknowledged the threat Trump poses. The day before, the former president said he wouldn’t be a dictator if reelected, “except for Day One.”

DeSantis fumbled a simple question on whether the former president, who would be in his 80s during a second term, is fit to serve. DeSantis said, “Father Time is undefeated” and “We need to have someone who is younger,” but did not answer the question.

“He is afraid to answer,” Christie interjected, adding that if DeSantis and others cannot confront Trump, then they can’t face down Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping.

You have to be willing to offend with the truth,” Christie said.

By avoiding that obvious truth — the elephant in the room for the four debates — DeSantis and Haley have further ensured that the former president not only will continue to dominate the polls but is likely to become the GOP nominee with little accountability even from those in his party who are trying to defeat him.

Absent or present, Trump wins.

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