It was the same old Ron DeSantis at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee last week.

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Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Republican primary debate on Wednesday. Morry Gash/Associated Press, file

Sure, the Florida governor hit his talking points. He called the United States “a country in decline.” He vowed to take on President Biden and “Bidenomics.” He touted his own COVID response in Florida and bragged about fighting crime by removing two “radical left-wing district attorneys” from office.

He dodged a question on whether he’d support a federal abortion ban. He wiggled away from any talk about Donald Trump’s betrayal of the country, saying we have to focus on the future, not the past. He promised to declare the border a “national emergency,” repeating his well-honed, bloodthirsty line that drug traffickers will be left “stone-cold dead.”

He was energetic. He was angry. He was well rehearsed. He was … meh.

And yet that didn’t really matter. Because, despite the pressure on DeSantis to win back Republican voters who have soured on him, most of the attention was still on The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Trump, as predicted, dominated from afar. Or as Fox News host Bret Baier – rather meanly – reminded DeSantis at one point, “he’s beating you by 30, 40 points in many polls.”


The candidates onstage were left fighting over scraps, with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy scoring the biggest wins with his irreverent attitude and calls for “revolution.” But Trump remained the clear favorite: When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to criticize the former president, the hall was filled with boos so loud he had to stop talking for a moment.

Those four indictments? Jan. 6? Not important.

The ex-president, meanwhile, was strutting away over on social media with his prerecorded Tucker Carlson interview and his promises that “SPARKS WILL FLY.” It was the perfect forum for a man who wants to be president but who did not want to be forced to defend his disdain for this country’s democratic principles.

Back in Milwaukee, the stage was brightly lit. DeSantis was smack in the middle. But a Trump-shaped shadow was cast over everything.

And it showed. When the Fox hosts asked about Trump in the middle of the debate, you could feel the tension rise. DeSantis was among those who raised their hands to say they would support Trump if he becomes the nominee. That, even though he recently admitted that Trump lost in 2020.

And yet you have to give DeSantis credit. He learns from his failures. He was happy to trot out his Florida record but steered carefully away from using the word “woke” – though he has based much of his campaign on being “anti-woke” – because the term hasn’t been landing with voters outside of Florida, who seem mostly to be confused about what it means. He focused on immigration and on law and order, as he has in recent speeches.


He even tried to create a Trump moment of his own. He said presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who led the White House COVID-19 pandemic response under the Trump administration, should have been dumped. “You sit him down, and you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired,’ ” he said, to a round of applause.

It was a weak attempt to brand himself as the new standard-bearer for the party, that elusive figure who can carry on Trump’s work without actually being Trump.

DeSantis may not have been standout, but he did fine. Ramaswamy made, perhaps, a bigger splash, if the number of attacks from other candidates was a measure. And Ramaswamy landed a shot on DeSantis when he called the others on stage “Super PAC puppets” – a reference to the Florida governor’s leaked debate preparation memo.

But watching the performance Wednesday night – of DeSantis and Ramaswamy and Christie and the others – leaves us with one question. Has the Republican Party given up trying to rid themselves of a four-time indicted leader who wanted to overturn a legitimate election so he could stay in power?

It sure looked like it.

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