Who Won the Debate? Political Observers Weigh In.

The first Republican debate on Wednesday night offered political pundits a bit of a thought experiment: If the clear front-runner doesn’t take part, can the debate have a clear winner?

Even as commentators spent the debate and its aftermath arguing over which of the eight underdogs on the debate stage performed best, they largely agreed that little seemed to alter the state of a race in which Donald J. Trump appears the runaway favorite.

Still, some pundits said that Mr. Trump’s absence did offer candidates the chance to differentiate themselves, an opportunity they may not have had if he had participated. And the battle to become Mr. Trump’s top challenger, some said, is more hazy. Here is a sampling of commentary on how the candidates fared.

Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in some ways entered Wednesday’s debate with the most to prove and the most to lose. While he has long been viewed as Mr. Trump’s strongest potential challenger, his campaign has stumbled in recent weeks amid fund-raising trouble and staffing changes.

But while Mr. DeSantis may have seemed like the apparent leader among this group of hopefuls, political pundits noted that he largely evaded the serious criticism or attacks that rivals usually level at would-be front-runners.

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, said during the debate that he expected Mr. DeSantis to “deal with constant incoming” attacks. By the end, Mr. Lowry said that Mr. DeSantis had “helped himself” by sticking to his message — and took “no incoming fire.”

Other observers noted Mr. DeSantis’s ability to stay in comfortable territory, trumpeting his conservative track record in Florida as proof that he could steer the Republican Party to success.

Mary Katharine Ham, a journalist and conservative commentator, called Mr. DeSantis’s strategy “effective.”

“Gimme a topic. Yeah, I did that thing. Let me tell you what I did. It happened in Florida. Results,” she said, summarizing his approach.

Still, some wondered whether the lack of attacks against Mr. DeSantis heralded a new phase in the race.

“Ron DeSantis was the leading candidate — still is the leading candidate — on that stage tonight,” Jen Psaki, a former press secretary for President Biden, said on MSNBC. “And they basically ignored him.”

Vivek Ramaswamy

Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur with no government experience, was the center of a number of contentious debate exchanges, seeming to enjoy being attacked as much as he appeared to relish going after experienced candidates over their records. But whether his scrappy, off-the-cuff sparring style helped him was a matter of disagreement.

Ms. Psaki said that Mr. Ramaswamy might appeal to voters by coming off as among the most unscripted of the bunch. He has “a little life in him, he talks like a human being, he says what he thinks and he pushes back on other people,” she observed.

David Urban, a Republican lobbyist who advised Mr. Trump in 2016, said on CNN that Mr. Ramaswamy’s visibility made him a “big winner.”

But on the flip side, some suggested that voters might find his aggressiveness off-putting.

“I think Vivek coming out and just taking on everyone on that stage, that is pretty gutsy,” Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, said. “I mean, maybe some people were annoyed by it,” she added, “but I thought it was pretty gutsy.”

Nikki Haley

Mr. Ramaswamy’s approach also helped call attention to some of his more established rivals, particularly Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Trump.

Though Ms. Haley’s campaign has so far struggled to gain traction, many political observers said that she stood out on the debate stage by presenting herself as a voice of reason, particularly when she battled with Mr. Ramaswamy over his views on foreign policy.

“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, let China eat Taiwan, stopped funding Israel,” Ms. Haley said. “You don’t do that to friends.”

Her comments drew notice. Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former communications director for Mr. Trump, said on CNN that Ms Haley “really took Vivek to the woodshed.”

Others noted that Ms. Haley, the only woman on the debate stage, spoke with authority on abortion, when she accused other candidates of being impractical and ignoring the effect their rhetoric might have on women.

“I think Nikki is going to get a second look from some people based on some stuff she said tonight on abortion,” Kellyanne Conway, a former adviser to Mr. Trump, said on Fox News. “I’m very pro-life, but I like what she said — that you don’t demonize or punish women. That’s important.”

Donald Trump

The largest question looming over Wednesday’s debate was whether Mr. Trump’s absence would be a misfire that might allow another candidate to claim the spotlight and generate more support.

By and large, political experts, even those who don’t have favorable views of Mr. Trump, agreed that was not the case.

Amy Walter, the publisher and editor in chief of The Cook Political Report, offered a stark assessment, saying that “Trump has to be pretty happy with this debate.” She suggested that none of the candidates “made their case” to voters open to other options.

Speaking on CNN, David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said that Mr. Trump “won big” after the debate, with “no one emerging as his principal opponent.”

Brendan Buck, a G.O.P. political strategist critical of Mr. Trump, said that “perhaps the biggest failure here tonight is nothing was done to make Donald Trump feel like he needs to participate in the next debate.”

For Rob Godfrey, a longtime Republican strategist based in South Carolina, Mr. Trump’s absence was a missed opportunity to dismiss his political rivals.

“There is no reason to believe he couldn’t have pulled off the same standup comedy routine he used to dominate every primary debate eight years ago,” Mr. Godfrey said in an interview.

Anjali Huynh and Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.

Michael Gold is a reporter covering transit and politics in New York. More about Michael Gold

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