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Put Me In, Coach

At the second Republican presidential debate, seven try-hard candidates made their case for being taken seriously

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Considered purely in terms of content, Doug Burgum may be the least appealing member of the 2024 Republican presidential field. His polling numbers barely qualified him for last night’s debate. Burgum spent the evening being ignored by the moderators and other candidates. He’s the governor of North Dakota.

But when Burgum entered the postdebate spin room, he was mobbed by reporters like he was Ronald Reagan reborn. After complaining about not getting enough questions, Burgum sped into the waiting arms of a Fox Nation interviewer—no mean trick given that Burgum blew out his Achilles playing basketball last month. After that, he sat for a chat with Univision. Then, resting his weight on a knee scooter, he cut a path through the spin-room crowd to talk to ABC News.

A few minutes later, I found myself alongside fellow content seekers in a Doug Burgum scrum. “Everybody saw the video of Aaron Rodgers,” Burgum told us, name-checking a fellow sufferer whom he had managed, miraculously, to outlast. He seemed eager to make up for lost time and ticked off talking points about China policy.

As reporters peeled away, Burgum spun around. In a way I had not anticipated, I found myself face-to-face with Burgum in full: the salt-and-pepper coif, the red tie, the American flag lapel pin, the slight perspiration forming on his upper lip. He looked at me in the way people do when they expect you to ask them a question. Uhhhh, I thought, ungainfully.

I came to the GOP debate at the Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley for a couple of reasons. It’s genuinely fun to witness an important moment in the life of our democracy. Or, rather, a moment trying very hard to be important. As a sportswriter, I also wanted to see how the reporters at a political debate compared to some of the press box hordes I have known. Instead of Dame Lillard, we would be talking about inflation.

The debate itself was … well … it was interesting. After Round 1 last month, a few candidates attempted a reboot. Vivek Ramaswamy: evincing newfound modesty (“I don’t know it all”) and outreach to Republicans he had mostly insulted. Tim Scott: showing newfound aggressiveness—by attacking Ramaswamy.

Most of the candidates rolled out now-familiar personas. Nikki Haley: hyper-prepared, and also eager to attack Ramaswamy. Ron DeSantis: focused on scripted talking points about Florida’s greatness. Chris Christie: wildly in search of a joke that would land (e.g., the inglorious “Donald Duck”). Burgum: Hey, over here!

Fox’s moderators—Dana Perino, Stuart Varney, Ilia Calderón—scolded the candidates for overtalking. They asked lots of policy questions. With seven Republicans trying to put points on the board, they had trouble getting those questions answered. See Mike Pence’s mega-pivot from a question about the Affordable Care Act to a plan to execute mass shooters.

Given Donald Trump’s absence from the debate and his massive lead in the Republican primary polling, this was the lowest-stakes presidential debate in a long time, one reporter told me. Because of that, I don’t understand why the moderators were so reluctant to ask about Trump, who is both the problem second-tier candidates have to solve and an issue in candidate form. Near the end, Perino asked the candidates to play Survivor and write down the name of someone they’d vote out of the race. Only Christie—nominating his archnemesis Trump—played along.

Covering a debate would be familiar to any sportswriter who has covered a big game. You get to the site early. There, you pass a few languorous hours before the action starts. There’s a lot of flinty journalist humor. You look around and realize any reporter wearing a tie is someone who is—or aspires to be—on television.

Debate sites don’t have press boxes, and political reporters don’t even sit in the same room as the candidates. In Simi Valley, they were directed to a white tent near the library that had been set up between a surviving chunk of the Berlin Wall and a sign warning of rattlesnakes. There, reporters did what viewers at home were doing: They watched the debate on TV.

Political reporters will tell you that flying across the country to watch Fox Business on a big screen doesn’t bother them that much. Debate assignments give them a chance to see the people who run campaigns—and, just as important, for campaign apparatchiks to see them.

Even so, watching TV with several dozen reporters is like being in one of those Buffalo Wild Wings commercials where everyone is Enjoying Sports Together! We had group laughs, beginning when Varney butchered the name of his co-moderator. Reporters may claim they like policy talk, but they have basic human urges. Just about everyone perked up when Haley told Ramaswamy, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”

Before the final question was asked, reporters began leaving the press tent, walking across the courtyard, and filing down a flight of stairs beneath the Reagan Library restaurant. The reporters entered a room that was overhung with a balcony, like those old operating theaters you see in the movies. This was the spin room.

The debate spin room is roughly analogous to the Super Bowl’s radio row: a journalistic destination that seems a lot more glamorous before you get there. I had imagined lots of yelling and urgent takes flying around. The spin room was kind of quiet, and I had to lean forward to hear some of the candidates’ surrogates. At times, there were more surrogates than reporters who wanted to talk to them. A Ramaswamy aide asked me whether I was a reporter and directed me to a proxy.

Political reporters insist that these encounters have some value. A surrogate could confirm that something a candidate blurted out is now part of their platform. The exchanges I heard sounded more like spin for its own, faintly clever sake. I asked Kathy Barnette, Ramaswamy’s national grassroots director, about Haley’s getting-dumber line. “What would be dumb would be to send these career politicians to go fix what they broke,” she said. That’s a slightly more artful version of what you hear in a locker room.

Burgum—playing his own surrogate, as long-shot candidates tend to do—was annoyed that he had gone 45 minutes (his estimate) without getting a single question during the debate. At one point, a moderator had threatened to cut his mic. So when Burgum turned to me, I stammered my way to a follow-up: Would he change the structure of the debates to make them more fair?

There, in his hesitancy to commit to an answer, Burgum seemed to bring the worlds of political debates and the locker room together. He looked at me and said, “It’ll be interesting to go back and watch the tape.”