Opinion: Anti-Trump Tennessee voters probably didn’t find a clear alternative in GOP debate

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson / Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a Fair-Side Chat with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tennessee Republican voters who tuned in to Wednesday night's first GOP presidential debate probably had several things on their mind.

› Does their man, former President Donald Trump, have anything to worry about from the seven men and one woman who took the stage in Milwaukee?

› Or, who will be the strongest candidate to compete with the detestable Trump in the 2024 primaries?

› Who is this guy, Vivek Ramaswamy, that people are talking about?

› Are any of the Southern candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, worth considering?

Most GOP voters in the Volunteer State currently prefer Trump, who chose not to attend Wednesday's debate. A Beacon Center poll released in July gave him a 61% to 12% lead over DeSantis and said he would easily win the state in a general election rematch with President Joe Biden.

Trump won the state in both 2016 and 2020, though his percentage of the vote fell a whopping .06% in 2020.

Whether or not the four-times indicted former president is the nominee or not, we expect Tennessee will once again be a red state in the election.

Essentially, the eight people in the debate were hoping to be the last person standing if Trump, for whatever reason, leaves the race.

As to whether he has anything to worry about from the candidates, all eight of them showed at times the feistiness of Trump and all showed a command of the issues that Trump often glosses over, but most of them didn't want to take the former president on directly and none of them had a breakout moment that is going to peel away large swaths of support from Trump.

For those who don't want to see Trump be the nominee — up to 39% in Tennessee, using the Beacon poll numbers — any of the candidates could fill the bill. Several currently register only blips on presidential polls, but all showed competency, if not a telegenic charisma.

National punditry following the debate was all over the place on who won and who lost. That's good for the country in having a number of sound choices but also good for Trump since no one stood out among the crowd.

Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur from Ohio who was the only candidate on the stage with no governing experience, made an impression — whether good or bad depended on your perspective. Viewers who knew nothing about him before the debate learned he is young, bright, unafraid to be confrontational and unafraid to take stances the others would not.

At the same time, some voters might have seen him as a little too smart for the room, a little disrespectful and perhaps too confrontational — Trump without the meanness.

All four Southern candidates acquitted themselves well, but that's not what especially the DeSantis campaign was hoping for before the event. DeSantis, who last winter began climbing in the polls as Trump fell, needed to establish himself as the one clear alternative to the former president. However, he had fallen back in the polls and Trump had risen since the former president was indicted for various crimes in relation to the 2020 election and his retention of top-secret White House files.

The Florida governor did not dominate the conversation, though, and did not command the stage as the candidate with the second highest support behind Trump.

Haley, as the only woman on the stage, showed both a toughness on foreign policy that she probably needed to satisfy skeptics but also a pragmatic side on issues such as abortion and women's sports.

Scott did not vary from his reputation for kindness, though as baseball manager Leo Durocher once remarked, "Nice guys finish last." He nevertheless was able to fill in parts of his backstory as the product of a single mother and scored points in enumerating American values.

Hutchinson, one of the two candidates along with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who openly criticizes Trump on the campaign trail, repeatedly mentioned things he'd accomplished in Arkansas and suggested he could scale them up for the country.

So what did Tennessee voters learn?

If they're on the Trump train, they didn't see any candidate break away and prepare to breathe down their man's neck. If they're not on the train, they saw a lot of good alternatives, none a head better than another.

It's a long way to the primaries, though, and a lot can happen between now and then. Voters can sit back and watch. The alternative candidates to Trump don't have that luxury. They have to make something happen.