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Vivek Skips Prep for Debate Against ‘Robotic’ Ron

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Welcome to Trail Mix, a fun but nutritious snack for your election news diet. See something interesting on the trail? Email me at jake.lahut@thedailybeast.com.

This week, we go behind the scenes of the debate stage battle nobody asked for but we all deserve. Plus, a look at what to expect from Chris Christie.

With Donald Trump set to skip the first Republican presidential debate, the clash between the two leading hopeful heirs to the MAGA movement—Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy—is likely to produce plenty of fireworks.

In fact, the punches are already flying between the two candidates’ camps, days before debate night in Milwaukee next Wednesday.

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Though both are running as far-right culture warriors, the two hadn’t really tangled until a leaked memo from the pro-DeSantis PAC Never Back Down became public on Thursday.

Revealed: DeSantis Camp’s 4-Point Debate Plan for ‘Robot Ron’

In the memo, first reported by The New York Times, the DeSantis boosters urged the candidate “to take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy on the debate stage, floating Trumpian nickname suggestions such as “Fake Vivek” and “Vivek the Fake.”

Ramaswamy’s team was quick to hit back. “DeSantis is being fed these lame, boring lines from his Super PAC,” a Ramaswamy spokesperson said in a text message to The Daily Beast. “It’s robotic. Time for another reset?”

The campaign spokesperson also alluded to previous reporting from The Daily Beast about DeSantis eating pudding with his fingers, adding: “If DeSantis struggles to use a spoon, I can’t imagine he is particularly agile with a sledgehammer.”

The rapid trading of barbs over social media and through the press on Thursday distilled an important dynamic concerning the two men most eager to win over Trump’s voters without antagonizing Trump.

While DeSantis is coming to Milwaukee with a detailed plan and canned nicknames, Ramaswamy—a young, wealthy biopharmaceutical magnate—plans on ripping a different page out of the Trumpian playbook: relying on instinct and, for the most part, completely winging it.

Though Ramaswamy has been a fixture on Fox News and conducted extensive local media blitzes during his campaign stops, he’s said “the key is the debate stage,” reflecting his belief that his upstart bid hinges on maximizing the opportunity to introduce himself to the widest audience yet of the primary campaign.

That belief is shared by basically all the other non-Trump candidates in the GOP primary, but the fact that Ramaswamy is poised to be a breakout star on the debate stage is one of the more unexpected developments of the race.

After starting out in the low single digits in polling, Ramaswamy is a rare candidate who has experienced forward momentum. The Ohio native is sitting in third place in most polls, running ahead of far better-known politicians like former Vice President Mike Pence and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Nikki Haley Is Losing Her Culture War Campaign

Ramaswamy, a self-dubbed “anti-woke” crusader, has pushed some of the most hardline right-wing positions and rhetoric of any candidate in the field, promising to eviscerate the federal government, raise the voting age to 25, and making fossil fuel consumption a foundational value of his campaign.

While other GOP campaigns have ratcheted down their schedules for extensive pre-debate briefings, mock sessions, and other more traditional forms of preparation, the Ramaswamy campaign is doing the exact opposite.

“It is not looking like your typical week before a presidential [debate],” a senior Ramaswamy aide told The Daily Beast, citing their peripatetic travel schedule, which takes the candidate through New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, California, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Ohio again before he heads to Wisconsin.

“So,” the aide said, “quite frankly, there has not been a lot of debate prep time.”

The senior campaign aide said Ramaswamy likely won’t do a mock debate next week, and beyond a few foreign policy-specific briefings to shore up an area where he has less expertise than other rivals, he plans on doing business as usual right up until the big night.

About a month ago, the Ramaswamy team sat down with their candidate and told him “your schedule, your campaigning, is quite frankly insane for a month before a debate. So we made a decision, either we're gonna go the traditional route or we're gonna take a less conventional route,” the campaign aide said.

Ultimately, Ramaswamy “felt like not being too overly prepared and polished was most authentic to him and would allow for the best, most genuine performance from him.”

He is not the only candidate banking on a stellar performance. As for DeSantis, one GOP strategist said his ability to fend off Ramaswamy—as well as the rest of the field—on the debate stage could determine whether his struggling campaign hangs onto second place and, potentially, “whether he even makes it to Iowa.”

‘Be Likable, Ron!’ Banner Flies Over DeSantis in Iowa

“It’s gonna be knives out for Ron, and Ron’s gonna get the shit kicked out of him from every angle,” the strategist said, arguing going after DeSantis is a far less risky bet for the rest of the field than going after Trump, save for a candidate like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Flanking Ramaswamy and DeSantis at the center of the debate stage will be Pence, Haley, Christie, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and theoretically Trump, if he decides to show. As The Daily Beast reported last week, there are compelling reasons for the former president to stay away, given the complications of the four criminal indictments he is facing.

Candidates will be limited to one minute answers and 30 second responses, which might stifle the potential for lower polling candidates to get air time.

“When it comes to winging it, I actually don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” a GOP strategist told The Daily Beast. “The more and more you’re talking to voters, the more interviews you’re doing with mainstream press, as long as you know the issues and you’re quick on your feet, that can resonate a lot more with voters. It’s part of what Trump does.”

On the other hand, “sometimes what happens though is you do too much debate prep and you freeze,” the Republican continued, pointing to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s infamous performance at the New Hampshire debate in 2016, where Christie fileted him live on stage by pointing out his robotic sounding talking points.

A source close to the Christie campaign said the former New Jersey governor tends to be at his best when he can “call out baloney where he sees it,” and, to borrow a hockey metaphor, land some punches as the “third man in” jumping into a fight.

“Some of his best moments from 2016 were when other candidates were fighting over what seemed like trivial matters, and he was able to redirect the debate toward the bigger issues at stake,” the Christie ally said.

In a memo obtained by The Daily Beast, the pro-Christie PAC Tell It Like It Is exuded confidence over the candidate’s debate strategy: keeping it short and simple.

“Be yourself, and tell it like it is,” the memo reads in its entirety.

Off the beaten path

More trouble in Kentucky. Kentucky Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial nominee David Cameron hasn’t had the best week. He stayed quiet on the fourth Trump indictment after previously defending the former president and echoing his talking points about the political weaponization of the justice system.

The rising star also has his own scandals to deal with, laying low following exclusive reporting from The Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger on extensive complaints from within his AG office over a toxic work culture where sexual harassment was allegedly prevalent. Yet while Cameron has not come to Trump’s defense this week, he showed no hesitancy backing Trump and thanking him for his endorsement after the former president was found liable by a Manhattan jury for sexually abusing author E. Jean Carroll.

The Sex Harass Scandal Inside a Rising GOP Star’s Office

It wasn’t me? Jeffrey Ross Gunter, Trump’s former embattled ambassador to Iceland, is running for U.S. Senate in Nevada. As The Daily Beast reported in June, however, Gunter only registered to vote in Nevada for the 2022 election, after spending most of his adulthood registered in his native California—as a Democrat.

In a statement to Politico this week, Gunter’s team offered a time-old—and dubious—excuse: It wasn’t him. His spokesperson said that his voter status was “fraudulently altered,” declining to offer more detail and insisting that he had never supported Democrats. But Los Angeles County election officials confirmed to Politico that Gunter has only ever been registered as a Democrat, making his team’s explanation all the more unusual.

Who exactly Gunter has voted for in the past is unclear, but he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates and causes over the years. Still, it’s rare for a partisan Senate hopeful like Gunter to have spent most of his life registered to vote with the other party without much explanation.

Image of the week

A screenshot from the Chris Christie campaign website
Screenshot: Christie campaign website

Chris Christie is really excited for the debate, in case you couldn’t tell. The homepage for the Tell It Like It Is PAC has a countdown clock taking up just about all the available space, and the group just released its eighth of 10 ads trolling Trump for skipping the debate.

Running count

Days since the last DeSantis campaign reboot: 10

Trump indictments: 4

Ramaswamy lawn signs spotted in New Hampshire: 3

Vermin Supreme sightings: 2

Campaign lit

Incognito tab. The Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger and Will Bredderman got to work after the latest Trump indictment dropped, shedding light on the unindicted co-conspirators alleged to have helped the former president attempt to subvert the 2020 Georgia results.

Georgia on my mind. Trail Mix's own Jake Lahut reported how much Trump’s latest indictment could cost Georgia Republicans in 2024, with the state’s GOP on trial just as much as the former president.

Too late to delete. Bernie Moreno, a Cleveland car dealer and 2024 Ohio GOP Senate hopeful, scrubbed much of his Twitter activity—but not all of it—which expresses a drastically different view about the 2020 election and Jan. 6 than the one he's pushing as the most MAGA candidate in the race, The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey and Ursula Perano scooped.

Being ‘a DeSantis.’ The Washington Post’s Ben Terris found a group of voters who aren’t turned off by the Florida governor’s awkward public persona, but instead find it all too relatable, including the messy eating.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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