With former President Donald Trump skipping Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, the eight candidates who took the stage had a chance to shine and make up a 40-point polling gap on the 77-year-old front-runner.
Unfortunately for them, experts consulted by The Post agreed, nobody did enough in Milwaukee to change the dynamics of the race.
“All of the candidates were looking for a breakout moment and didn’t get it,” said former Westchester County Executive and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino.
“Donald Trump wasn’t there,” he added. “That’s like watching the Kansas City Chiefs without Patrick Mahomes. The star wasn’t there.”
The candidate who came into the night with the highest expectations was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is polling a solid — if distant — second behind Trump in most national surveys.
“DeSantis hit fly balls short of the fence,” Astorino said of the former college baseball player. “He was trying to hit home runs. I don’t think he had a great performance. He wasn’t attacked a lot. He’s still a viable candidate.”
Republican political consultant Rob Ryan agreed, telling The Post DeSantis “had all the charm of a New Jersey state trooper showing his flashlight in your eyes at 1 a.m. He didn’t really seem to connect.”
Former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato disagreed, saying DeSantis “was excellent. He was right about not backing down to the teachers’ union. He was right on the border.”
The most polarizing candidate of the evening was Vivek Ramaswamy, who was attacked in turn by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on issues including pardoning Trump if he’s convicted in any of the four pending criminal cases against him and continuing military aid to Ukraine.
“Vivek is very smart — but he was over the top,” said D’Amato. “He was a showboat, but he got his name out there.”
“Vivek Ramaswamy started off strong, but he then came across as too cocky, too glib,” said Ryan. “He had the cockiness of a billionaire, like an Elon Musk.”
Astorino gave the strongest endorsement of the 38-year-old, saying he “had a good night.”
“He was lively. He got a lot of attention,” he added. “He got a lot of arrows, which means people view him as a threat.”
Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf told The Post that Ramaswamy was the only candidate on stage who didn’t come off as “boring,” which wasn’t necessarily a compliment.
“Vivek was vivid, but he’s not going anywhere. The next stop for him is oblivion,” Sheinkopf said. “A guy who lifts weights and attacks Israel is someone people are paying attention to? Is that the best the Republican Party’s got? That’s it?”
Of the other candidates onstage, GOP consultant Ryan was most impressed with Haley — “It will be interesting if she pulls more support from women” — and Pence.
“The best thing for Mike Pence is when everyone said he did the right thing on Jan. 6 and refused Trump’s bid not to certify the 2020 election,” he said. “We may see a rise from Pence based on what other people said about him.”
Astorino dissented, saying Pence “went from a simmer to a low flame. He’s just not excitable.”
“I thought Tim Scott was good on the economy and having a strong military,” said D’Amato. “I don’t think Mike Pence distinguished himself during the debate and Chris Christie didn’t help himself. Nikki Haley didn’t help herself that much.”
Ryan said the former New Jersey governor “was an attack dog, he always is, but I don’t know if it helped him” while Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) “wasn’t dynamic enough.”
All six candidates referenced by our experts will likely make the debate stage next month in Simi Valley, Calif.
The big question is whether a certain someone else will feel the need to join them.