Opinion: GOP debate gaggles unlikely to change the primary outcome — until something consequential happens

AP Photo/Mark Terrill / GOP presidential contenders Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy talk over each other during the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the only candidate to take the bait.

Asked by a moderator at the end of the second Republican presidential debate Wednesday night to write the name of a candidate who should be "voted off the island," he named Donald Trump. The other six candidates demurred.

Trump, the former president and candidate for a second term, skipped the debate just as he skipped the first one last month.

He figures, with a lead of 42.2 points over other GOP candidates in the Real Clear Politics poll averages, he doesn't need to be there and field the slings and arrows of candidates with followings in the single digits of support.

That's a pity. Because he needs to answer both his critics — he's in some legal trouble, you may have heard — and tell the American people what he would do in a second term besides pestering the national media.

But with some national polls now showing him beating President Joe Biden in a head-to-head rematch of 2020 — in an ABC/Washington Post poll by 10 points — why would he participate?

Trump took some shots from the seven candidates on stage at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, but nothing that would damage him.

Christie, who appears to be in the race only to be a persistent critic of the former president, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got in a few lines. But they are unlikely to inflict any damage.

Indeed, it appears the non-Trump presidential candidates can continue to stage these events until the Iowa Republican caucus in January, and little or nothing will change.

Unless ...

› Trump faces new legal trouble that keeps him off the ballot somewhere (Colorado's trying), is involved in an actual court trial (not likely before the first of the year) or is surprised by some bombshell accusation (the sky's the limit).

› One GOP candidate or another (Christie excluded) determines that it is in their best interests to stop tiptoeing around Trump and begins attacking him, making the argument forcefully either that he cannot win, that he will be dogged by legal troubles throughout a potential term, that he'll be as old as Biden is now during his term, that he could serve only one term if elected or, preferably, all of the above.

› Something happens to Biden, woeful Vice President Kamala Harris becomes president or acting president, and it changes the dynamic of the 2024 race, in which any GOP candidate would be heavily favored to win.

In the meantime, it appears we'll be having more of the same free-for-all that marked Wednesday's debate.

Perhaps to point up of what little consequence these exercises — minus anything critical happening — are, the national punditry is all over the board on which candidate might have "won" or "lost" the debate. DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott all received plaudits from some reviewers and brickbats from others.

Both DeSantis and and Scott were credited with being more forceful than they were in the first debate, while Haley was credited with holding her own or coming close to her performance in last month's clash, where she received high marks. Others opined that all three didn't do enough to move the needle.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was less annoying than his first time at the GOP table in August but continued to offer intelligent answers, favored nationalist policies — no more "birthright" citizenship for those of illegal parents, for instance — and a lively presence.

The other three — North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum (business smart), Christie (the needler in chief) and Mike Pence (who came off like someone a generation older than the other candidates) — probably should be the first to go if there are going to be only one or two opponents for Trump when the primaries start.

The sad part is that all seven on the Reagan stage would make a better — and eventually more electable — president than Trump.

A general election poll by J.L. Partners earlier this month, for instance, showed Haley, DeSantis and Scott all would be favored over the unpopular Biden, while Pence and Ramaswamy would not be.

Trump also is favored in the same poll, but it is how he fares in individual states that will count in the end. He trails Biden in polls in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all of which he needed in his 2016 win. He is slightly favored in Arizona and Georgia, both of which he won in 2016 but lost in 2020.

He would need to win all the electoral votes he had in 2020 — 232 — add 37 more from the three closest states he lost — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin — and still pick up one more, Michigan, Nevada or Pennsylvania, to win. With the baggage he's added since the 2020 election, it seems practically impossible.

That's why DeSantis, Haley & Company stick around, even if it's for another night of muddled moderators, constant crosstalk and fruitless fighting. But displacing Trump will require a lot more than that.