After the third Republican presidential debate, only one question matters.
Did anything change?
All five candidates on the stage in Miami needed to shake up something in the fundamentals of the race.
They are all badly trailing former President Donald Trump, who is hovering around 60% in the national polling averages. They are also far behind him in the early states, including Iowa, which votes in January.
The theory has been that it will take Republican primary voters a while to pay serious attention to the race. But soon it will be Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
As Ronald Reagan might ask, “If not now, when?”
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) was solid and disciplined, mostly staying above the fray but landing his occasional jabs against the losing culture that has afflicted the party since Trump — who’s become a different guy since 2016! — lost his mojo.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was forceful in her defense of Israel. The only thing that makes her madder than Iran is entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who went after her footwear and foreign policy throughout the evening.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told stories about his life and tried to stay within the confines of the debate’s time limits. But he was the least ambiguous about his preference for a federal abortion policy, taking up the space to the right of Trump and Haley on an issue that has vexed Republicans at the ballot box since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the tough-talking guy who says he has actually done everything the other candidates are talking about, tossing truth bombs about Trump’s legal woes as if he just reinvaded Iraq.
But with few exceptions, all of these things have been done before. None of them seem to have made much of an impact on the race.
The snap polls will probably look good for DeSantis and Haley. Republican respondents will also dutifully reply that they were disappointed that Trump was a no-show yet again.
But will anything be different 72 hours later?
Haley has seen some upward movement in the polls since the debates started, though not enough to bypass DeSantis convincingly, much less overtake Trump.
DeSantis has yet to really dominate a debate like the front-runner onstage, but it is hard to say any of these events have really hurt him either.
Still, Trump continues to have the top tier all to himself, and the hour is getting late.
The main thing the contestants have to hope has changed is the interest level in a substantive debate.
None of them stooped to Trump’s level with personal insults, though Ramaswamy’s digs at Haley on war and wardrobe may have worn as well as ill-fitting high heels and prompted the ex-ambassador to mutter that he was “scum.”
The NBC moderators did a better job of maintaining control and decorum than was seen at previous debates, even if they weren’t Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, or Greg Gutfeld. The smaller field also helped.
If Republican voters, reeling from the whiplash of seeing President Joe Biden’s dismal poll numbers and then their own party’s disappointing off-year election results, were looking for change, maybe they found something they liked.
So far, however, the debates have mainly served to move a second candidate into double digits and spark a Vivek boomlet that seems to have already faded.
DeSantis made the case he was a Trump who would actually keep his promises. But hasn’t he done so before? The taxing remittances to make Mexico really pay for the border wall was a nice touch.
Haley has argued the world is on fire and the president who sent her to the United Nations is no longer the right man to put it out. She has said such things before, but perhaps the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, followed by weeks of antisemitic incidents on college campuses here at home, raises the stakes.
One thing is for certain: The status quo benefits Trump because he is the leader of the race.
In fact, the debates up to this point have failed to establish a race for anything but second place.
Every candidate at this debate is hoping that either the base gets tired of Trump or the judges in one of his trials do.
There’s still time before Iowa, but not much.