Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
With “the elephant not in the room,” 8 GOP candidates for President spar over that elephant, Ukraine, government spending, and more.
Eight Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Milwaukee Wednesday night for the first in a series of debates ahead of the 2024 primary season. “The elephant not in the room,” as co-moderator Fox News anchor Bret Baier said, was the party’s frontrunner and former President Donald Trump.
Trump, who is leading the field by double digits with most polls showing him over 50%, decided to skip the debate in Wisconsin, choosing instead to record an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. That interview aired on X (formerly Twitter). The post of the interview has been seen nearly 167 million times in under 12 hours.
With Trump absent, the “undercard debate,” as some pundits labeled the evening, gave the other candidates an opportunity to present themselves to the American people without the former President stealing the spotlight. The candidates sparred over government spending, support for Ukraine, Biden’s economy, abortion and of course, the elephant not in the room – Trump.
At stage center was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, the two highest polling candidates behind Trump. Flanking the two were former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
Here are 5 takeaways from the first GOP debate of the 2024 cycle.
1. A viral song, a show of hands, and UFOs.
Fox News moderators Baier and Martha MacCallum stuck to their script as much as possible during the debate, but it was obvious that a fair number of the canned questions raised eyebrows from the candidates and viewers alike. Among those were the use of a viral song, a call for a show of hands, and a question on UFOs.
The debate opened with the playing of the viral social media song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” with the moderators using the song’s success to frame their first line of questioning. MacCallum asks DeSantis, “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
MacCallum, following a video of a young voter commenting on climate change, later asked for a show of hands from the candidates if they believe “human behavior is causing climate change.” The candidates didn’t take that urging well, with DeSantis speaking up and saying, “Look, we’re not school children. Let’s have the debate. I’m happy to start.”
Toward the end of the debate in the “lightning round,” MacCallum asked Christie about the “recent spike in UFO encounters,” inquiring, “Would you level with the American people about what the government knows about these possible encounters?” Christie laughed, along with the audience, responding, “I get the UFO question? Come on, man.”
2. Pence shows vigor.
The former Vice President in the Trump Administration, often viewed as reserved, nudged his way into nearly every exchange during the debate, so much so that Baier had to repeatedly address his interjections and remind Pence to stay in his allotted time.
Pence couched himself as the most experienced, best prepared candidate on the stage to be the next President. He spoke methodically about his service as Governor of Indiana and as Vice President, rattling off his conservative bona fides and policy wins along the way.
He was also able to make an entire question segment about him doing his duty on January 6, 2021, upholding the U.S. Constitution in the face of what he recalls as pressure from Trump to act beyond his authority. Every candidate on stage, save one – Ramaswamy – backed Pence’s role in certifying the 2020 election.
Speaking of Ramaswamy, Pence directly called out the businessman’s lack of political experience, saying, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in people without experience.” Ramaswamy responded in kind, saying solving the economic problems facing the U.S. “isn’t that complicated” before listing potential solutions as he sees them.
3. Ramaswamy gets under the skin of the other candidates.
No matter the exchange or topic, it was obvious that Ramaswamy isn’t well regarded by a majority of the GOP field. As mentioned above, Pence took issue with the businessman’s inexperience in government. But that line of attack was mild after Ramaswamy unabashedly took on the entire field by claiming that they were all bought and paid for by SuperPACs and special interests.
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said of Ramaswamy.
Later in the debate when asked about Ukraine and continued monetary aid being sent to the country as they combat the Vladimir Putin-led Russian invasion, Ramaswamy said he would not support increased funding. He went on to express his opposition to defending the Ukranian border while the Southern U.S. border was left open.
Haley, also the former U.N. Ambassador under Trump, said Ramaswamy doesn’t understand international affairs.
“You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” Haley said to Ramaswamy, adding, “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows. It shows.”
However, Ramaswamy held his on in his first-ever political debate, sticking to his main points and not backing down from the attacks. The 38-year-old repeatedly made reference to the need for the next generation to take the reins and lead. He was poised and direct in his pronouncements of his positions and clearly leaning into his role as the outsider.
In his closing statement, Ramaswamy summed up why he’s running. It was a list of “truths” that appears to be resonating with GOP voters as he is currently polling third among the field.
“I was born in 1985 and I grew up in a generation where we were taught to celebrate our diversity and our differences so much that we forgot all of the ways we are really just the same as Americans bound by a common set of ideals that set this nation into motion in 1776. And this is our moment to revive those common ideals,” Ramaswamy said. “God is real. There are two genders. Fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity. Reverse racism is racism. An open border is not a border. Parents determine the education of their children. The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to man. Capitalism lifts us up from poverty. There are three branches of government, not four. And the U.S. Constitution, it is the strongest guarantor of freedom in human history.”
4. DeSantis walks away unscathed.
The Florida Governor expected to draw fire from all sides at the debate, given that he was the leading candidate in the polls among those in attendance. However, much of the attention and attacks were directed at Ramaswamy, leaving DeSantis mostly unscathed.
DeSantis, running second to Trump in the polls and down by over 30 points, largely avoided the firing squad by speaking succinctly and passionately, and not engaging directly with his fellow candidates.
He was able to set the tone of the evening in the first question, taking a direct shot at the Biden Administration which led to other candidates, like Christie, to state their agreement with him.
“Our country is in decline. This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis was rarely interrupted or challenged throughout the debate. The most notable one was when Pence pressed him to answer the question on whether he supported the former Vice President’s actions on January 6, 2021. Pence said the American people deserved to know.
“Mike did his duty,” DeSantis said. “I’ve got no beef with him.”
DeSantis’ influence was perhaps most felt in challenging the moderators, refusing to participate in their urging of a show of hands over a climate change question and attempting to recenter the conversation on abortion, directing back to the media’s reluctance to hold Biden and Democrats’ accountable for what he believed to be their more extreme views on the matter.
Whether the performance helped DeSantis gain attention, however, is suspect as avoiding the fray seemingly relegated him to the sidelines much of the evening.
5. Trump’s standing in the polls unlikely to change.
Despite him not attending the debate, the former President is unlikely to be negatively impacted in the polls. Trump has a commanding lead in nearly every credible poll across the county and the margins are so wide that his campaign is essentially on cruise control at this point.
However, his ongoing legal troubles – having been indicted now four times in both state and federal courts from New York, Florida, Washington D.C. and Georgia – could eventually give voters pause if he is found guilty in one or more of the cases.
But even then, all of Trump’s legal battles are largely viewed as “political persecutions” in the minds of a majority of Republican voters. That fact was on display in Wednesday’s GOP debate.
All candidates, except Christie and Hutchinson, vowed to support Trump in the General Election if he’s the party’s nominee, with Ramaswamy being the most vocally supportive. The businessman called Trump the greatest U.S. President this century.
“We cannot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents. It is wrong. We have to end the weaponization of justice in this country,” Ramaswamy said.
Christie and Hutchinson did not shy away from saying Trump’s indictments disqualify him from leadership of the party and should disqualify him from being the next President.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said, as a mix of boos and cheers could be heard from the audience. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct his beneath the office of President of the United States.”
Trump’s lack of attendance in this first debate does not mean that he won’t potentially attend the second debate that is slated for late September. Although, Trump has already cast doubt on his attendance at that event.