What ought to be an election cycle’s focus sometimes doesn’t figure into it much at all.

Two examples: Democrats competing for the 2020 presidential nomination ought to have been talking about covid-19, but it seldom came up in their debates, even as the pandemic was unfolding. The 1988 general election ought to have highlighted the teetering Soviet Union and how best to manage its possible dissolution — but the Soviets were discussed almost solely in the context of arms control.

The 2024 election season ought to put front and center the malignant threat to the United States posed by the Chinese Communist Party and dictator Xi Jinping. (To President Biden’s credit, on Tuesday he referred to Xi as a dictator. Let’s drop the farce of calling Xi “president”; it’s an insult to democracy.) But will this topic, vital to the future of the United States, feature prominently in the 2024 campaign? The country can’t afford another election in which what ought to be a central matter is little mentioned.

Every Republican would-be nominee needs to be smart on China for the primary debates, of course, but the eventual nominee should also make command of the subject an essential qualification when selecting a running mate. That, plus the willingness and skill to go after the Democratic ticket relentlessly, in the tradition of, say, Richard M. Nixon in 1952, or Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004.

Mike Pence played the role of attacker well in his two trips down the vice-presidential lane. Now running for the top job, he would know what to look for in a VP: a disciplined, tireless fighter who can hammer the Democratic ticket for Biden’s mishandling of China (and so much else, in particular the economy, immigration and the collapse in Afghanistan).

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just returned from a trip to Beijing that brought to mind the sort of kowtowing that “Middle Kingdom” emperors once demanded of vassal states. Blinken asserted, no doubt much to his hosts’ delight, that the Chinese surveillance balloon episode in February is a “chapter” that “should be closed.” He also needlessly emphasized U.S. policy in saying that “we do not support Taiwan independence” when China is continually menacing Taiwan with naval and air forces.

I suspect the Republican ticket will have to make its case about China elsewhere than in debates. Those are unlikely in 2024 because the GOP now regards the organizing entity, the Commission on Presidential Debates, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. The Republican VP nominee will need to pound home the message about Biden and China in every other available forum.

Beyond the GOP candidates currently vying for the top spot but possibly interested in settling for No. 2, who would be a good choice for that supporting role? With one exception, my short-listers are young but all are deadly serious about the CCP menace. If the increasingly frail Biden is the Democratic nominee, a new-generation Republican would underscore that frailty while taking the Biden administration to task for its failure to deal adequately with China’s rising threats to U.S. national security and economic interests.

Sen. Tom Cotton hails from deep-red Arkansas and is never not up for a fight. This 46-year-old veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has the heft of combat experience that is increasingly rare among politicians. Biden’s appeasement of the Taliban and the calamitous U.S. exit Afghanistan deserve to be a major issue in the 2024 campaign. Cotton could address it like no other rival, and he would be a good fit with every potential GOP presidential nominee.

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo — at 59 the oldest on my list, but with energy equal to any of them — would also match nicely with the current slate of presidential candidates. Well, maybe not Donald Trump right now; Pompeo recently criticized the former president following his indictment in the classified documents case. But if Trump is the nominee, his greatest need will be a safe pair of hands, someone who is skilled at messaging and who, crucially, knows national security cold. That’s Pompeo.

Because Trump values central-casting good looks, in addition to subject matter expertise, he might be inclined toward Robert C. O’Brien, the 57-year-old former national security adviser. He is well-versed in the China threat and, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, O’Brien could be a difference-maker in Arizona and Nevada.

I’m hardly alone in thinking a great potential running mate for any Republican nominee would be Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin. He’s especially strong on China as chairman of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The 39-year-old former Marine and Iraq War veteran is a dynamic politician who, with his committee, is already working every day to educate Americans about the long battle with China that lies ahead.

Two other promising 39-year-olds on my shortlist who would mark the change to a new generation: Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a Navy SEAL veteran, who is well known for his public presence and combat service, and Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa, who serves on Gallagher’s select committee and thus knows the CCP threat well.

Other strong potential vice-presidential candidates will no doubt emerge, but the job requirement regarding China remains the same: the ability to make the case that Cold War 2.0 is already upon us.

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