Debate relevance already fading
Trump remains miles ahead
Haley moving up on flagging DeSantis
Donald Trump has just been matched at his shortest odds yet to regain the US Presidency in 2024. At 2.82, his implied chance of victory is 35%, now clearly ahead of Joe Biden, whose 3.4 odds imply a 29% chance. The move is primarily a reaction to one poll, recording Trump 10% up. Whilst that looks an extreme outlier, it adds to the sense of panic among Democrats about Biden being the candidate.
Seven qualified for California debate
Those Democrat questions are for another day though, as the race for Republican Nominee takes centre stage in the early hours of Thursday (UK time). Six candidates face off in California in their second debate. Trump will not be there - instead addressing Michigan's striking autoworkers in a stunt that seems to have already backfired. Nor will Asa Hutchinson, whose failure to qualify surely ends his miniscule hopes.
11.8 million watched the first debate and I expect that number to drop. Polls indicate this primary is a no-contest, recording Trump at least 33% ahead.
Time is rapidly running out for a rival to cut through, or merely land a blow on Trump. The problem is, with the exception of Chris Christie, few are even prepared to overtly attack the front-runner. Meanwhile the guy making the most noise is rigidly on message with Trump.
The race broadly involves three factions. Trump and his younger version, Vivek Ramaswamy, whom I remain strong on for the Republican VP Nomination. Old-school (pre-Trump) Republicans - Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Doug Burgum and Chris Christie. And Ron DeSantis, who is positioning himself as more extreme than Trump, whilst rarely criticising him, in the hope of sweeping up that far-Right base.
Ever greater extremism on display
Over the past 16 years, I have watched the GOP shift from right-wing culture warriors to frankly the most extreme politicians in the history of Western democracy. The trend started before Trump. In his absence, I expect that extremity to reach new levels as the likes of DeSantis become ever more desperate.
Take the last week. Following the Jan 6th insurrection, General Mark Milley (as chair) co-ordinated a letter to Congress from all eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff promising the military would not impede Biden's inauguration. Trump now says the retiring General deserves to be executed. Coverage was minimal and any outrage muted, while some Republicans such as Paul Gosar endorsed Trump's take.
If that wasn't shocking enough, check out Vivek Ramaswamy's latest bid to create viral content. This is bound to come up in the debate, and Ramaswamy will double down.
Therein lies the core problem for Trump opponents. Ramaswamy is playing the same game Trump did in 2016. Doing as Steve Bannon advises and 'flooding the zone with shit'. It works every time. The rest are drowned out. I am confident Ramaswamy has been trained and this is a co-ordinated attempt to secure the nomination for Trump.
Haley emerging as main rival
On the other flank, the only one making headway is Nikki Haley. She did well in the first debate and has risen up the betting to 32.0 for the presidency, just behind DeSantis. She has been criticising Trump for being 'weak at the knees' on Ukraine, and will doubtless face off with Ramaswamy on that topic.
This will delight old-school, pro-NATO Republicans and like-minded Conservatives across the West. Haley will get strong backing from Pence, Christie and Tim Scott. It is somewhat doubtful how well this plays with the GOP primary audience though. Or indeed how many of the old 'NeverTrump' faction are even registered to vote. Many became Democrats after Trump's hostile takeover.
All signs point to Trump being nominee
Wider signals about the mood of that primary base can be seen in DeSantis flip-flopping. Once an anti-Russia hawk, he's recently come out against Ukraine joining NATO. In another telling signal, long-time Trump opponent Brian Kemp, Governor of Georgia, has said he will support Trump if he wins the nomination.
If not musing about executing generals, where then will Trump's rivals dare to attack him? The one area where Trump may be slightly vulnerable is abortion.
Could abortion attacks land in Iowa?
Trump recently called the ban on abortion after six weeks signed by DeSantis as a terrible mistake. He hasn't committed to a 15-week federal ban, which is increasingly the mainstream Republican position (albeit a position very unlikely to make it through Congress). Iowa, which stages the opening caucus, has also passed a six-week ban.
Expect therefore DeSantis and Pence in particular to go hard on this. This tactic - accusing Trump of not being Conservative enough - did yield some dividends for Ted Cruz in 2016. Cruz duly won Iowa and set up an exciting race.
My instinct is that ship has sailed. Trump now dictates policy positions at will, coherent or not, and his base follows. This abortion row has not yet impacted Iowa polls. He leads by between 24 and 37%. With Trump's trials beginning long after primary voting starts, this race looks done already.