Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted an online conversation with Ann Coulter, who writes the Substack newsletter Unsafe, and Stuart Stevens, a former Republican political consultant, to discuss their expectations for the first Republican debate and the future of American politics.

Frank Bruni: Stuart, I’ve done many of these political roundtables, but never one at a juncture this titanically and transcendently bizarre. The first Republican debate of the presidential election season is tonight, the party front-runner is absent, and he’s running, oh, infinity points ahead of his Republican rivals despite two impeachments, 91 felony counts and unquantifiable wretchedness. Color me morose.

But also, illuminate me: Given Donald Trump’s lead and its durability, does this debate matter, and how? Is there an argument that it could change the trajectory of this contest?

Stuart Stevens: If a candidate enters the debate with a strategy of taking out another candidate, it can change a trajectory. In the 2012 primary, Mitt Romney did this to Rick Perry in their first debate and again in a subsequent debate to Newt Gingrich. (I was the campaign strategist for that Romney campaign.) But you must go into a debate with the attitude “one of us will walk off this stage alive.” I don’t think anyone has the nerve to do that.

Ann Coulter: I think this is Ron DeSantis’s to lose. If he’d just ignore the media and be the nerd that he is, he’ll do great.

Bruni: Stuart, do you agree that DeSantis has an underappreciated strength and that there’s really a path for him to this nomination? And other than DeSantis, is there anyone on that stage tonight who could have a breakout moment and matter in this nomination contest?

Stevens: DeSantis is Jeb Bush without the charm. He is a small man running for a big job and looking smaller every day. If I were advising Tim Scott or another candidate, I’d advise them to use the debate to attack DeSantis and blow him up. This is a man who lost a debate to Charlie Crist.

Coulter: I’m sorry, but this just shows that you have zero understanding of the country, much less the party. Also, famous last words, but: I don’t think Trump will be the nominee, but you’d really do the country a solid if you could get Democrats to stop indicting him.

Bruni: Ann, in just a few sentences, why won’t Trump be the nominee? That’s a renegade perspective. (Or, given recent Republican political history, should I say maverick?) Convince me.

Coulter: Trump can barely speak English. He’s a gigantic baby. The only reason he crushed in 2016 is because of immigration — the wall, deport illegal immigrants, the travel ban (which imposed limits on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries). That is DeSantis this time — without the total lack of interest in carrying it out.

Bruni: OK, but before we move on, is there anyone else in this debate who could break out and matter?

Coulter: No.

Bruni: Stuart, do you too believe Trump will not or might not get the nomination, as Ann does?

Stevens: Trump is what the Republican Party wants to be. He’s a white grievance candidate in a party that is over 80 percent white and has embraced its victimhood. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson are alternatives, but there isn’t a winning market for an anti-Trump message. Trump will be the nominee.

Coulter: I think you’re both more focused on personalities and whiteness than the voters are. It’s issues. And on the issues, Christie is totally out of step with the G.O.P. — and I’d say the country. He weeps about Ukrainians killed and raped by Russians, but doesn’t seem to give two figs about Americans killed and raped by illegal immigrants in our country.

Bruni: Fair point about personalities, Ann, so let’s indeed turn to issues and larger dynamics. You’ve identified Ukraine as an issue getting too much attention. What else is getting lots of attention but largely irrelevant to this race’s outcome, and what’s hugely relevant and being overlooked?

Stevens: It is actually all about race. Eighty-five percent of the Trump coalition in 2020 was white non-Hispanic in a country that is about 60 percent non-Hispanic white, and less since we’ve been chatting. The efforts in 2020 to deny votes was focused in places like Atlanta and Philadelphia. Why? That’s where a lot of Black people voted.

Coulter: So you think the G.O.P. is racist. Wow, never heard that before.

Stevens: In 1956, Eisenhower got about 39 percent of the Black vote. In 2020 Trump got 8 percent. A majority of Americans 15 years and younger are nonwhite or Hispanic white. This is what terrifies Republicans.

Coulter: This is just your excuse for your candidate losing a winnable election in 2012.

Bruni: You and Stuart are both hugely down on Trump as a human and as a candidate. Do you think he loses to Biden despite Biden’s, age and low approval ratings, or is this a jump ball if Trump gets the nomination?

Coulter: If Trump gets the nomination, I say he will lose. I know it, you know it, the American people know it (to paraphrase Bob Dole).

Stevens: Trump could win. In 2020, he lost by a combined 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin. Otherwise, he would still be president. Biden needs to win by 4.5 percent to carry the Electoral College. So it is inevitable it will be close.

Coulter: Nah. OK, maybe. I think Trump loses, but who knows? He’s not the Trump he was in 2016 — it’s the same old thing over and over and over again. “Shifty Schiff,” “perfect phone call,” “we won BIG,” strong, strongly, strong — zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Bruni: There’s sustained chatter that someone significant — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — could join and upend the Republican field at a late moment, presented as a savior. Do you foresee that? How would it play out?

Stevens: There is this need among some in the donor Republican class and the National Review types that the Republican Party can revert to being a normal party. That’s insane. Take Glenn Youngkin. He endorsed Kari Lake for her Arizona gubernatorial run. Youngkin didn’t change her, she changed him.

Coulter: I hope it doesn’t come to that because DeSantis is head and shoulders above every other G.O.P. presidential candidate (or politician) on the three most important issues: immigration, crime and the Covid response. Unless the prime minister of Sweden is running in this race, no one beats DeSantis on the Covid response. That’s the 3 a.m. phone call — every state and world leader faced the exact same unseen-before virus. Only those two got it exactly right.

Bruni: Ann, I have to ask you this simply because your pom-poms for DeSantis are so large and exuberantly shaken. How are you comfortable with how negative, vengeful, naming-of-enemies, slaying-of-enemies his whole shtick and strategy are? Dear God, you are the biggest Reagan lover I know, and there’s no “It’s Morning Again in America” from the Florida governor. It’s the darkest night, all the time.

Coulter: So glad you asked that. As I describe in my book “In Trump We Trust” — about the greatest presidential campaign in history (followed by the most disappointing, wasted presidency in history) — this “I’m optimistic!” talking point that campaign consultants feed their candidates is absurd. Ronald Reagan was not optimistic in 1980 — it was only after four years in office that it was “Morning in America.” He was not “positive” or “optimistic” in 1980 at all.

It’s nauseating to see candidates try to pull off the “I’m optimistic” nonsense — which I promise you they will in the debate, especially Tim Scott.

Bruni: Well, I’m not optimistic, for what that’s worth.

Coulter: Yes, Frank — you’re like most voters! That’s why the “I’m optimistic” idiocy falls so flat.

Stevens: Republican donors looked at a model for Republican success as a big-state governor: Reagan, George W. Bush and Romney won the nomination. But all of those candidates were optimistic, expansive candidates. DeSantis is an angry little man who can’t articulate why he wants to be president. He got in a fight with the Happiness Company, Disney, and lost. He created a private police force at a cost of over $1 million to go after voter fraud in his own state, which he had claimed had a perfect election. They arrested 20 people — and convicted just one.

Bruni: I still prefer candidates who, I don’t know, tell us to try to find the good in, and common cause with, one another rather than identify whom to hate and how much. I’m old-fashioned that way. To return to the debate: Is there any chance Trump is hurt by his decision to skip it? Or is he showing considerable smarts? By choosing tomorrow to turn himself in in Georgia, he will compete with and shorten the media’s post-mortems on the debate. He will, in his signature manner, yank the spotlight back toward … himself!

Coulter: The only reason Trump will “stay in the news” is that the media keep him there. The weird obsession liberals have with Trump is driving normal people away from the news. Even I, MSNBC’s most loyal viewer, cannot watch it anymore. The same words, same arguments, same info, same topics for over two years now! “We almost lost our democracy!”

Trump is a bore. Please stop covering him.

Bruni: Let’s do a lightning round. Fast and quick answers. If something happened soon and Biden couldn’t or didn’t run, which nationally known Democrat would be the party’s fiercest presidential candidate, assuming that candidate had just enough runway to take off, and in a few phrases or one sentence, why?

Stevens: Gavin Newsom. He’s a skilled politician who can build the coalition it takes to win. It’s not a bad exercise to ask, “Could this candidate win X state as governor?” Newsom is someone you could see as governor of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Ohio.

Coulter: No one the Democrats would ever nominate — for example, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, possibly Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.

Bruni: Why?

Coulter: Because they’re all white men.

Bruni: Is the widespread belief that Kamala Harris negatively impacts Biden’s prospects for re-election overstated or understated?

Stevens: Overstated. Has anybody actually looked at her record as a candidate? She’s won big, tough races. Until her presidential bid, she never lost.

Coulter: Understated. I heard a discussion on MSNBC yesterday about how she’s fantastic one-on-one, a laugh riot, a charm offensive. That just doesn’t come out when she’s in front of a crowd, you see.

The last person they tried that with was Al Gore, who apparently reached comedic highs alone in his bathtub.

Bruni: Should Clarence Thomas be impeached?

Stevens: Is that a rhetorical question? A Supreme Court justice who acts like an oligarch’s girlfriend, flying around on special vacations. Of course. He’s a disgrace.

Coulter: No, he should be made czar of our country. For decades, liberals were mostly OK with the Supreme Court as it was inventing rights like abortion or Miranda or throwing out the death penalty. But now, suddenly there’s a major ethics issue about a justice who’s gotten the left’s goat since he was nominated.

Thomas votes and writes opinions exactly as his judicial philosophy would predict. The idea that he ruled a certain way because someone took him on a fishing trip is ludicrous.

Bruni: Lastly, rank these American institutions in the order of influence they might have over the final results — the winner — of the 2024 presidential contest: Fox News, Facebook, The New York Times, the Supreme Court.

Coulter: Fox News: almost zero, unless the nominee is Trump — then you can blame Fox. Facebook: 2 percent. New York Times: 8 percent, maybe 10. The political economist Tim Grosseclose wrote a book (“Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind”) estimating the influence of the media on elections and concluded it was about 8 percent. But that was roughly 10 years ago. It’s probably more now. The Supreme Court: hopefully zero.

Stevens: The Supreme Court by far. In the history of the country, only five justices were confirmed by senators representing a minority of the country’s population. All five are on the court today. It is completely out of step with the majority of the country, and the results played out in 2022.

I don’t think Fox created the Republican Party; the Republican Party created Fox. For the most part, Fox didn’t support John McCain, didn’t support Romney, didn’t support Trump in his nomination campaign. They couldn’t affect the outcomes with their own base.

Facebook has the potential to impact the race, as it did in 2016.

I don’t think The Times has played a major role in a presidential campaign, and I think that’s a good thing — it’s not their job to play a major role.

Bruni: Thank you both for your time, your insights and your energy.

Coulter: Thank you, Frank, thank you, Stuart.

Stevens: Thanks, all!

Source photograph by Mark Wallheiser/Getty.

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Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram@FrankBruniFacebook

Ann Coulter is the author of the Substack newsletter Unsafe.

Stuart Stevens (@stuartpstevens), a former Republican political consultant who has worked on many campaigns for federal and state office, including the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Conspiracy to End America: Five Ways My Old Party Is Driving Our Democracy to Autocracy.”

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