MATTHEWS: The GOP presidential race ain’t over ’til it’s over

This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidates, top row from left, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former president Donald Trump, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and bottom row from left, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy. With less than a month to go until the first 2024 Republican presidential debate, eight candidates say they have met the qualifications for a podium slot. But that also means that about half of the broad GOP field is running short on time to make the stage. (AP Photo)

With two debates down and three and a half months to go before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential race remains largely a two-person competition, with former President Donald Trump still well ahead in national and statewide polling and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trailing him at a distant second in most polls. 

Trump being a former president is a big advantage for him. But the four indictments against him are undoubtedly what is fueling his campaign the most, with many GOP voters viewing the charges as the equivalent of election interference allegedly being orchestrated by the Biden administration to try and thwart a potential 2024 general election opponent. 

Trump’s significantly higher polling leads have led him to decline participation in the presidential debates, with Trump saying it’s no contest and that it’s time to unite in order to begin the process of taking on the Democratic war machine that will try to drag Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over the finish line one more time. 

The other candidates, not surprisingly, beg to differ and have spent the last two debates and countless days in critical early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina trying to make their cases to primary voters as to why they and not Trump should be the ones to lead the party on to the general election against Biden. 

While the first debate was for the most part substantive, the second one was described by some as a dumpster fire, at one point devolving into former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, also from the Palmetto State, shouting at each other over a $50,000 curtain purchase made for the home in which United States ambassadors to the United Nations reside. 

Haley was the ambassador in 2018 when the story broke, but it was later noted that the purchase was actually made under the Obama administration. 

Haley has been described by some political observers as having “breakout moments” in both debates, with her numbers in one New Hampshire poll now showing her in second place. But polls taken by The Washington Post after both debates show DeSantis was the winner according to a plurality of poll participants. 

Trump’s refusal to take part in the debates (the next one is in Miami on Nov. 8) has prompted DeSantis to challenge him to a one-on-one, which DeSantis called for last week after the Reagan Library debate and which he suggested in subsequent interviews. 

“It’s one thing to [attack me] behind a keyboard. Step up on stage and do it to my face,” DeSantis stated on Fox News the day after the second debate. 

“I’m ready for it. You used to say I was a great governor. Now all of a sudden you’re saying the opposite. Let’s have that discussion. And we could do it one-on-one.” 

While Trump is unlikely to take him up on the challenge, DeSantis is set to take part in another one-on-one debate that has been months in the making between himself and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. That debate, which some have dubbed the “red state/blue state debate” will take place Nov. 30 on Fox News during Sean Hannity’s program. 

As for the polling and Trump’s seemingly insurmountable lead, it has been pointed out that there have been others in similar positions who did not go on to win their party’s nomination. 

An example of that is Hillary Clinton, who was easily ahead of her Democratic primary opponents in 2007 by 20 points plus on average until a late surge from then-Sen. Barack Obama propelled him ahead, setting them up for a protracted and brutal battle for the nomination that went all the way to June 2008. 

In other words, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Stay tuned. 

North Carolina native Stacey Matthews has also written under the pseudonym Sister Toldjah and is a media analyst and regular contributor to RedState and Legal Insurrection.