Spring over med Donald Trumpthe first Republican presidential primary debate in 2024, eight of himmain rivals— most of whom were men wearing ties similar to the bright red ones the former president regularly wore — vied for second placeWednesday evening.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and first-choice candidate, took center stage with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis - and was the central figure for most of the evening. Ramaswamy clashed with former Vice President Mike Pence over his experience, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley over foreign policy, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over Trump and more.
And because he has positioned himself as Trump's defender, Ramaswamy has sometimes stepped in as a stand-in for the former president, who stepped off the stage Wednesday night but is taking it back Thursday when he turns himself into the Fulton County Jail . in Georgia, where he is accused of election sabotage.
For all the fireworks during the two-hour showdown, the debate had an undercard feel. Trump has maintained his massive lead in the polls despite his legal woes, and nothing that happened Wednesday night is likely to changeof racevise versa.
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Due to the former president's absence, several candidates who have positioned themselves as fierce critics of the former president have been denied the opportunity to confront him directly. Christie, who Ramaswamy said is running a campaign "based on revenge and resentment" against Trump, spent more time arguing with the entrepreneur than with the former president. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson engaged in long stretches of the debate without being acknowledged.
Meanwhile, for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, the most important development Wednesday was his ability to participate in the debate at all. Burgum was taken to a Milwaukee emergency room Tuesday afterwardsufferinga high quality tear of his Achilles tendon.
"I think I took it too literally when they said, 'Go to Milwaukee and break a leg,'" he joked.
The debate took place before a raucous crowd of about 4,000 people at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The public reactions — including jeers and boos when candidates criticized Trump — sometimes drowned out Fox News moderators.
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Candidates go for Ramaswamy
With Trump absent from Wednesday's debate, the target for most debaters was not DeSantis or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott or any candidate who has ever held elected office. It was the political newcomer Ramaswamy. The first joke against the Ohio entrepreneur came from Pence: “Vivek, you said the other day that a president can't do everything. Well, I have news for you, Vivek. I've been in the hallway. I've been to the West Wing. The president of the United States must face every crisis that America faces."
It led to a heated back and forth and light name calling between the two candidates. Later, in the first part of the debate, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy's response to something brought up by ChatGPT. Christie then took advantage of Ramaswamy's rhetorical question about what a little-known man with a funny name was doing on the debate stage, pointing out that the joke was eerily similar to Barack Obama's old snub about him being "a skinny kid with a funny name who believes, that America has a place for him."
At another point, Pence went after Ramaswamy when the entrepreneur said, "We are in the midst of a national identity crisis." The former vice president replied: "We do not have an identity crisis, Vivek. We are not looking for a new national identity."
The pile-on aimed at Ramaswamy was surprising. He is new to politics. At the same time, the latest opinion polls show that he rises above other candidates, who in some cases have spent decades in electoral politics. For Ramaswamy's opponents, it is all about sapping the momentum he has.
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DeSantis doesn't stand out
DeSantis had raised expectations that he would be at the center of Wednesday's debate. He was anything but.
He certainly didn't talk much. Although his campaign suggested that his Republican opponents would have their "knives" for DeSantis, he was not on the receiving end of many attacks. And in a key moment — when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he is convicted in court — DeSantis looked around the podium to see how everyone else had reacted before half-heartedly arguing that, that he was right. palm.
DeSantis, who earned the lead, seemed content to leave Milwaukee without risking his second place in the polls. But he also did little to dispel the poll-confirmed impression that he is closer to the rest of the pack than on par with Trump or any of his own.
When he spoke, DeSantis relied heavily on rehearsed lines familiar to anyone who had heard him speak in recent months. As he does during the campaign, he opened the debate by declaring "Our country is in decline" and "We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement." He joked about Hunter Biden's paintings — a common punch line when he visits early-nomination states. He said that under the DeSantis administration, people who enter the United States illegally would end up "stone cold dead," a promise he has repeated for weeks.
At times, moderators tried to discourage DeSantis from his practiced comments. As DeSantis touted his crime record by saying Florida was at its lowest point in fifty years, Fox's Brett Baier noted that crime had risen in Miami. DeSantis clarified, "Well, all over the country." When asked if he would support a six-week federal abortion ban, DeSantis talked about his election victory in Florida. When forced to answer, he responded as he has for weeks, refusing to rule it out or back it up.
DeSantis sought to shed his reputation as a cold and rigid debater by speaking forcefully directly to Americans at home, often pointing directly at the camera, and sharing anecdotes from an abortion survivor and a mother whose son died of fentanyl poisoning. He shared his biography - mentioning his military service three times and repeatedly talking about his young family - an admission that voters may not yet know his story, apart from the cultural clashes and Covid-19 policies that have driven him to a Republican star. made.
Christie has no escape moments
If there was one candidate who was expected to emerge with an instant knockout on Wednesday night, it was Christie. Nearly eight years ago, former Gov. Marco Rubio embarrassed the final pre-election debate in New Hampshire by pointing out the Florida senator's habit of repeating lines. While Rubio won more votes than Christie in the Granite State (fifth to Christie's sixth), the senator struggled to shake off the robot reputation.
Christie seemed willing to give Ramaswamy the same treatment. But while Christie's "ChatGPT" line recalled his past debate performance, it failed to bring down the Ohio businessman. Instead, Ramaswamy attacked him for his criticism of Trump.
Asked if he would support the former president if convicted of a crime, Christie said the party should stop "normalizing this behavior" and getting booed from the crowd.
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"Your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by revenge and grudge would be much more credible if your entire campaign was not based on revenge and grudge against one man," Ramaswamy said.
Before the debate, Doug Mayer, a senior adviser to the Christie campaign, told CNN that the former New Jersey governor would turn anyone who defended Trump into Trump. But Christie's attempt to attack the former president's top defender on stage met with even more vitriol from the audience.
"You make me laugh," Christie said before the sound of boos drowned him out. The optics didn't help: Fox News ran a split screen showing Christie standing still while Ramaswamy laughed until the moderators asked the audience to let him finish.
Candidates discriminate in abortion
Some candidates supported a 15-week federal abortion ban. Some said they opposed efforts to implement a nationwide ban. And no one has clearly stated that they would sign a six-week federal abortion ban — even if they had passed such laws as governors.
More than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion policy remains a difficult issue for Republican candidates caught between the need to demonstrate their anti-abortion bona fides and address the realities of a political landscape where voters rejected tough measures. abortion restrictions and the candidates who supported them.
At one end of the spectrum was Haley, who sparred with Pence over the possibility of passing a federal ban. Haley urged the other candidates to be "honest" with the American people about the low likelihood that 60 senators could overcome a filibuster and pass a federal ban on abortion. Instead, she pushed for consensus on issues such as encouraging adoption and giving doctors and nurses with moral objections the right not to perform the procedure.
"Consensus is the opposite of leadership," Pence said in response. But even Pence was unwilling to go beyond endorsing a 15-week federal abortion ban, the limit set by a bill introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham last year.
"A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come," Pence said. Scott also supported the 15-week on-stage ban.
Two candidates who passed a six-week abortion ban into law — DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — did not say they would do the same nationally. Burgum said his opposition to a national ban stems from his support for the 10th Amendment. When asked if he would sign a six-week federal ban, DeSantis simply said he would "stand on the side of life."
"I understand that Wisconsin will do it differently than Texas," DeSantis said. "But I will support the pro-life cause as governor and as president."
DeSantis tries but fails to dodge the question on Jan. 6 after Pence presses him
When moderators asked DeSantis if Pence was right to reject Trump's pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the Florida governor tried to dodge -- ignoring what he was being asked and complaining about the federal government's "weaponization."
But Pence dug in and put DeSantis on the spot.
"The American people deserve to know if everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day. There is no more important duty, so answer the question," he said.
"Mike has done his duty. I have no problem with him," DeSantis said, trying to move on quickly.
The moment illustrated how careful the Florida governor is about alienating Trump's base.
However, Christie scoffed at DeSantis' response, calling it "a pre-canned speech."
He said Pence "doesn't deserve any praise; he deserves our thanks as Americans."
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Haley is leaning toward the general election
Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, delivered a message on Wednesday aimed more directly at mainstream voters than her rivals.
What's less clear is whether she did enough to impress Republican voters to get there.
Haley opposed a federal abortion ban, saying the reality of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to break the filibuster and the need for a majority in the House of Representatives means "consensus" on the issue is needed. She also said birth control should be available to all women.
She was one of the few candidates to acknowledge that climate change is real.
She was the first to criticize Trump by name, citing rising spending during his presidency. She praised Pence's actions on January 6, 2021, despite Trump's pressure on the former vice president to overturn the 2020 election results. Haley also called her former boss the "most hated politician in America."
"We can't win a general election like that," she said.
And she hammered Ramaswamy during an argument about Russia, while Haley defended US support for Ukraine.
"You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows," she said in one of the most animated conversations of the night.
Scott sticks to Mr. Nice Guy Routine
Scott's plan going into the debate was to stick to his "kill them with kindness" line. For the first part of the debate, he did. The problem was that approach kept him out of most exchanges. While the other candidates debated and argued over abortion, Ukraine, and whether Trump should be pardoned, Scott wasn't really involved. He tried to insert himself with warnings about the "weaponization" of the federal government and crime in America. But all his comments and arguments faded into the background as the candidates rallied on Ramaswamy or praised Christie Pence for his actions on January 6, 2021.
When given a chance to address the southern border, illegal immigration and fentanyl, Scott gave a lengthy response about how important and easy it would be to complete Trump's border wall.
"As the next president of the United States, I will complete that border wall," Scott said, expanding on each word in the closing sentence. He paused for applause. There was none.
Before the debate, Republican strategists argued that this was the approach Scott wanted to take because it is his authentic self. The question now is whether the South Carolina senator will continue this in the future.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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