BARRINGTON, Ill. — Tony Iosko sat close to one of five TVs blasting last night’s presidential debate trying valiantly but unsuccessfully to figure out which candidate he’d support.

“I like Vivek. I like Haley. They’re both sharp,” he told POLITICO, referring to businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. “Wait. I like Tim Scott, too. …. And Ron DeSantis.”

And with near comedic timing, though he wasn’t trying to be funny at all, the retired Cook County judge added: “They’d all be good vice presidents.”

Iosko was part of a group of nearly 50 mostly uncommitted Republican voters gathered in the private room of Moretti’s Ristorante & Pizzeria in Chicago’s northwest suburbs for a debate-watch party. The event was organized by the Illinois chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch.

Americans for Prosperity, like other high rollers in the GOP, is still looking for a candidate to back in the primary. AFP has more than $70 million banked for an effort to tank Donald Trump.

It’s a challenging task as the primary becomes increasingly lopsided in the former president’s favor. Those who came to AFP’s event seemed to think the race was pretty much over. Nearly all of the 22 people POLITICO talked to say they will support the GOP nominee no matter who it is.

Even if it’s Trump. (One voter wished Robert F. Kennedy was a Republican.)

The former president’s looming presence was reflected not just in Iosko’s musings but on the debate stage too. Candidates, desperate to shake up the race, attacked Trump on Wednesday night — not for his policy positions or his ongoing legal troubles, but for not showing up on stage. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even tried to engineer a nickname for the former president, “Donald Duck” for skipping out.

But the attacks didn’t seem to tamper down a sense of inevitability about Trump snapping up the nomination.

Though Brian Siwicki, a retiree who was there with his wife, Gennie, said it’s still “too soon” to pick a candidate, he wondered if the candidates on stage “have the moxie.”

“You know Trump does,” he said.

The gathering of Republican voters still looking for a candidate should have been the exact audience for the candidates on stage. But among those gathered to scarf down the free tavern-style pizza, praise was faint.

“He’s a fighter,” is how Lynn O’Brien, a member of the Illinois Republican Central Committee, described Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. She worked on Trump’s previous campaigns and said the Illinois GOP isn’t endorsing in the primary. But she’ll be behind Trump again if he heads the GOP ticket.

The one candidate who stood out to John Picchiotti with the Wheeling Township Republicans was Haley. “She could appeal to women, moderates and voters who felt disenfranchised by Donald Trump.”

Barbara Rose, a retired hygienist, also liked what Haley had to say. But she scoffed at the squabbling. “I just want them to stick to policy and not pick on each others’ personalities,” said Rose about halfway through Wednesday’s debate. “It’s like breaking up kids in a fight.”

Fernando Ramirez, who works in public affairs, sat down with pizza hoping to settle on a candidate but left not really liking any of them. “Immigration is important to me, and I don’t think any of them took the issue seriously,” he said.

As the wine and beer kept flowing, the watch party became more “party” than “watch.” A few people skipped out so they could hear the rest of the debate at home.

The sentiment, over and over again, was that this debate stage wasn’t about who was going to top the ticket. The attendees may be undecided in theory. But even they’re concluding that the primary is more or less over.

Phil Ludkowski, an orthopedic surgeon, summed it up when surveying the field. He said he agrees with “most all of [DeSantis’] principles. I like Ramaswamy, too. I don’t like Christie because his whole campaign is based on attacking Trump. And Mike Pence, I think he’s good vice presidential material.”

Leave a Reply