Our state has experienced an unusual combination of political debates for an off-election year — presidential and congressional. Although the events received intense media coverage, there wasn’t enough explanation as to why these matches are important to Utahns. Therefore, your canny columnists cheerfully convey clarification.

Although one poll claims almost half of Utah Republicans prefer Donald Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024, other surveys place the support between 20% and 28%. The presidential primary debate was panned for several reasons, but the individuals on that stage are the alternative to the former president. Thus, since a majority of Utahns want a choice, did this debate provide a good look at the options? Is there a Utah non-Trump favorite?

Pignanelli: “This was basically a debate over who’s going to be number two, because at some point, an asteroid hits. And that’s the actual conversation.” — Sarah Isgur, ABC News   

Convinced the debate would be a snooze fest, I ensured my iPad and high-octane beverage were nearby to provide needed distractions. What an event! I never touched any of my electronic devices because I was entertained and intrigued from start to finish (I did consume my beverage, of course).

The absence of Trump allowed a reveal of the various trends and undercurrents within the Republican Party. Some national pundits criticized the lack of harmony among participants, but the disagreements demonstrated a vibrancy needed in establishing an ideology. While polls indicate little movement in the approval needle, several candidates should be appealing to Utahns.

Nikki Haley received accolades for an honest assessment of government spending, abortion restrictions and the support of Ukraine — matters important to Utahns. Ron DeSantis held his own and Tim Scott referred to his personal story, which local citizens find compelling.

The surprising primary debate offered a menu to many Utah Republicans seeking a new flavor of politics to consume.

Which presidential candidate impressed Utah Gov. Spencer Cox?
DeSantis, Haley see post-debate bump in Iowa poll

Webb: With Trump as a no-show, viewers of the presidential debate were provided a needed opportunity to evaluate the other candidates. Ron DeSantis has the most endorsements among Utah Republican leaders, and he is likely the preferred non-Trump candidate in Utah. I also very much like Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott. In fact, most of the candidates on the debate stage would be better than Trump as president.

The one exception is Vivek Ramaswamy, who seems willing to allow Russia to conquer and subjugate Ukraine. If we abandon Ukraine, it gives a green light to China to invade Taiwan and then we’re in a severe international crisis. Ramaswamy seems naïve on foreign affairs and he flirts with nutty conspiracy theories. He’s glib and charismatic, but is not prepared to be president.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson have no chance to win and should end their campaigns.

A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll revealed almost half of voters remain undecided in the 2nd Congressional District. However, Becky Edwards claimed 32% of respondents in contrast 11% for Bruce Hough and 9% for Celeste Maloy. There were 11 debates in this special election, and Edwards attended none of them. What do these results imply about these matchups?

Pignanelli: If Edwards wins or comes close, she will have dramatically altered the strategies surrounding candidate debates. Incumbents have the privilege of limiting time with challengers. But in an open seat, contenders usually use every opportunity to wrestle with colleagues. Edwards may be providing irrefutable evidence that politics is evolving and eliminating the necessity of participating in these matches. This could further illustrate the obsolescence of precinct caucuses and possibly conventions.

Webb: This survey is old enough that it should not be viewed as a snapshot of where the campaign is today. The three candidates are all solid and attractive and running smart campaigns. Anyone can win at this point and citizens of the 2nd District will be well served by any of the three.

I’m guessing voter participation will be low, and it’s very hard to determine who will vote. However, mail-in balloting makes voting easy, and it means more casual (low-information) voters may participate. Edwards’ TV ads have boosted her name recognition, which helps in polling. But Hough and Maloy are targeting their outreach more on reliable GOP voters, which I think is still the best strategy.

Second Congressional District voters will be sending in their ballots in the next few days, if they haven’t already. What are the tactics that will be used by the candidates in the final days preceding Sept. 5?

Pignanelli: With such a large undecided vote, there will be increased advertising documenting personal differences between the candidates (aka negative messaging) because most of their political beliefs are similar. The campaign that identifies individual supporters, and successfully urges them to mail their ballots, will prevail.

Webb: In a close race, a thousand little campaign activities add up to a win. As the campaign winds down, relentlessly calling every voter possible, sending out that last batch of postcards, delivering messages up to the last minute on social media, and obsessively executing a comprehensive get-out-the-vote plan will help produce a victory.  

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.