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Kathleen Parker: Who are we kidding? Nikki Haley won on brains and experience

Kathleen Parker Washington Post

Hands down, Nikki Haley won the first GOP debate. And I don’t say this just because she’s a South Carolinian or because she was the only woman among the fiery pack of primary candidates. She was simply smarter (even smarter than you, Vivek), more sensible and more experienced – and it showed.

While the men onstage argued and hurled invectives – some of them, anyway – Haley was poised, precise and prepared. And I would add brave. It took courage to do what others, with the exception of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, refused to do: speak truth to Donald Trump’s power.

She also called out her Republican colleagues for making Americans think a federal abortion ban is going to happen. The votes, 60 in the Senate to prevent a filibuster, aren’t there, she said. On the debt crisis, she reminded everyone that the debt grew by about $8 trillion under Trump. And in a roundabout reference to Trump’s lack of qualifications for another term, she said a president needs “moral clarity.” Who else could she have meant?

Haley’s tenure in Trump’s Cabinet as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been problematic at times, creating potential obstacles to her own presidential aspirations. But any questions about where her loyalties lie were answered in Milwaukee before a live audience of about 4,000 people, as she brought both her executive and foreign policy experiences to bear. A twice-elected governor, Haley oversaw removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds in 2015 following the murders of nine Black congregants at a famous civil rights-era church in Charleston. As U.N. ambassador, she didn’t need a learning curve and executed her job with polish, if not everyone’s approval.

Wearing a pale blue knit suit on Wednesday night, she shed her gloves but kept the pearls, so to speak. I cheered just a little when she schooled Vivek Ramaswamy about the importance of Ukraine to the United States. The youngest candidate, at 38, Ramaswamy argued that we should redirect resources from Ukraine to our southern border. Haley vehemently disagreed, saying that a win for Russia is a win for China (true) and, therefore, Ukraine is important to our national interests. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” she said.

Ramaswamy, whom I once considered the most interesting candidate, mainly echoed the policies of The-One-Who-Was-Missing, whom he described as the best president of the 21st century. Young, telegenic, wicked smart and a self-made billionaire, he is the new conservative superstar. But something about him is off. Maybe it’s the arrogance, the stylish braggadocio, the smarter-than-thou attitude. Or the way he uses his dazzling, ultra-bright smile to convey disdain or to deflect.

It’s all too much. Most of the others attacked him on various grounds but did so primarily because he’s polling higher than they are. I doubt he has gone unnoticed by Trump, who could find him reminiscent of his younger self. A possible running mate?

And then there were Those-Who-Also-Spoke. For ease of note taking, I made a list of the candidates and assigned to each a descriptive word or two. They were Smarty, Deacon, Jerk, Gramps, Brows, Sweetie, Humdrum and Grumpy. You can probably figure out who’s who, and there’s a reason for that. Though often silly, nicknames reflect a memorable characteristic or impression. Public speakers know that audiences might not recall what you say but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

While Smarty – Haley – made me feel like I was in competent company, Pence reminded me of every Presbyterian deacon I ever knew growing up. I kept expecting him to pass the plate. Ramaswamy, No. 3 above, made me want to punch him in the nose, which is a figure of speech and not a threat. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson seemed gramp-y and made me sleep-y. Even when he called for lethal force against bad guys bringing fentanyl into our country, I kept picturing him and President Joe Biden slurping ice cream cones at South of the Border.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum will forever be a set of eyebrows, but he gets a pass for now since he was probably in considerable pain from a torn Achilles’ tendon the day before the debate. It’s a wonder he showed up at all, and it reinforces the association between thick brows and high levels of testosterone.

Sen. Tim Scott, also of South Carolina, is the sweetest man on the planet and is not too good to be true. He is both true and good to the bone. But in the current political climate, I’m not sure the audience can hear him. Humdrum Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was a drip. Bouncing between unanswered questions and rehearsed repeats, he defied rumors of his high intelligence. More damning, either he doesn’t like people, or he doesn’t know how to act around them, as a species. As Woody Allen said, the brain is the most overrated organ. Not that this is a problem for today’s GOP, with a few notable exceptions.

That brings us back to Christie, who took the boos in stride when he said we have to stop normalizing Trump’s noxious behavior. It’s hard to look happy even so, and Grumpy, after all, was the role he chose.

Reach Kathleen Parker at