Math can be a challenge for writers, but the arithmetic underlying Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate is simple and important enough to summarize.
Five candidates took the stage, the far and away frontrunner wasn’t among them, and only two that did are viable challengers to Donald Trump’s hold on the nomination.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has long been held up as the most realistic Trump successor, while former ambassador Nikki Haley has run the best campaign of any candidate so far.
As Wednesday’s forum made clear, there is no case for any of the other participants to press on.
For the third consecutive time, DeSantis and Haley did the most to help themselves, proving that they’re the two best candidates on paper and in practice.
Each shrewdly leaned into their respective strengths.
Haley gave focused, policy-driven answers informed by her Reaganite worldview.
DeSantis stressed the difference between rhetoric and real world results, bringing up his record of accomplishment in the Sunshine State at every opportunity.
Even when they were the subject of others’ attacks, it was they who benefitted.
In a single sentence, Haley dispatched Vivek Ramaswamy after he all but accused her of war-profiteering by declaring that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are “salivating” at the thought of him ascending to the White House.
DeSantis provided a less stark, but nevertheless notable example of this phenomenon when he parried a jab from Haley on the environment with a smooth line about protecting the Everglades.
Chris Christie, Tim Scott, and even the loathsome Ramaswamy all delivered the occasional compelling answer.
But for the preponderance of the evening, DeSantis and Haley showed why they stand head and shoulders above the others in the polls.
Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that barring a massive change in the race, the debate would do little to stop Trump from again laying claim to the nomination.
The frontrunner has wisely stayed above the fray to date.
To draw him into it, the anti-Trump forces will need to coalesce around a single candidate.
And before there can be one, Haley and DeSantis must have it out without the three also-rans distracting from the two contenders.
The time has come for egos to be put aside and quests for cabinet positions to be given up.
Basic math and patriotic duty demand that those without a chance of saving the country from a Trump-Biden rematch at least refrain from condemning it to such a calamity.