With Donald Trump skippingthe first debate of the Republican primary for the 2024 presidential election, eight of his ownprimary rivals– most men wearing ties similar to the bright red ones the former president usually wore – battled for second placeWednesday evening.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old businessman and first-time candidate, took center stage for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and was the centerpiece for much of the evening. Ramaswamy clashed with former Vice President Mike Pence on his experience, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on foreign policy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Trump and more.
And because he has positioned himself as Trump's defender, Ramaswamy has been, at times, a stand-in for the former president, who briefly left the stage Wednesday night but will return Thursday when he surrenders to the Fulton County Jail. in Georgia while facing charges of election tampering.
For all the fireworks in the two-hour showdown, the debate felt like a side card. Trump has maintained a huge lead in the polls despite his legal troubles, and nothing that happened Wednesday night is likely to change that.the raceIn your head.
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The former president's absence meant that several candidates who had positioned themselves as harsh critics of the former president did not have the opportunity to face him directly. Christie, who Ramaswamy says is running a "revenge and grievance-based" campaign against Trump, has spent more time fighting the businessman than the former president. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson spent large stretches of the debate unrecognized.
Meanwhile, for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, the most important event Wednesday was being able to join the debate. Burgum was taken to the Milwaukee emergency room the following Tuesdaysufferinga large rupture of his Achilles tendon.
"I think I took it too literally when they said, 'Go to Milwaukee and break your leg,'" he joked.
The debate took place in front of a raucous crowd of about 4,000 people at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The crowd reactions (including jeers and jeers when the candidates criticized Trump) sometimes choked up the Fox News moderators.
Here are seven excerpts from the first debate of the 2024 Republican presidential primary:
Candidates are chasing Ramaswamy
With Trump absent from Wednesday's debate, the target of most panelists was neither DeSandis nor South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott or any candidate who had ever been elected. It was political newcomer Ramaswamy. The first blow to the Ohio businessman came from Pence: “Vivek, you said recently that a president can't do everything. Well, I have news for you, Vivek. I've been to the corridor. I've been to the west wing. The president of the United States must deal with all the crises facing the United States."
This sparked a heated exchange of views and mild insults between the two candidates. Later in the first part of the debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy's responses to something compiled by ChatGPT. Christie then seized on Ramaswamy's rhetorical question of what a little-known guy with a funny name was doing on the debate stage, noting that the joke sounded an awful lot like Barack Obama's old line about being "a skinny kid with a funny name." . he thinks America has a place for him."
Elsewhere, Pence attacked Ramaswamy when the businessman said, "We are in the midst of a national identity crisis." The former vice president replied, “We're not having an identity crisis, Vivek. We are not looking for a new national identity."
The attack on Ramaswamy was astonishing. He is new to politics. At the same time, recent polls show him outperforming other candidates who have spent, in some cases, decades in electoral politics. For Ramaswamy's opponents, the point is to destroy whatever momentum he has.
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DeSantis is no different
De Santis raised expectations that he will be the focus of Wednesday's debate. It was the complete opposite.
He certainly didn't speak further. Although his campaign suggested that his Republican opponents would pull out their "knives" for DeSantis, he did not come under much attack. And in a pivotal moment, when the candidates were asked to raise their hands on whether they would support Trump if he were convicted in court, de Sandys leaned across the stage to see how everyone else had responded before, half-heartedly. , assert your right. palm.
DeSantis, who won the spotlight, seemed content to leave Milwaukee without jeopardizing his second place in the polls. But he did little to erase the impression, borne out by polls, that he is closer to the rest of the pack than on par with Trump or one of his own.
When he spoke, DeSantis relied heavily on tried and tested lines familiar to anyone who heard him speak in recent months. Just as he does on the campaign trail, 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 joke when he visited states that had been nominated. He said that under DeSantis' administration, people who cross into the United States illegally would end up "stone dead," a promise he has repeated for weeks.
At times, the moderators tried to talk DeSantis out of his practiced comments. When DeSantis touted his crime record by saying it was at a 50-year low in Florida, Fox's Brett Baier said crime was up in Miami. DeSantis clarified, "Well, statewide." When asked if he would support a federal six-week abortion ban, DeSantis talked about his election victory in Florida. Pressed for an answer, he responded as he has for weeks, refusing to discount or endorse it.
DeSantis has tried to shed his reputation as a cold and rigid debater by speaking directly to Americans at home, often pointing directly to the camera and sharing anecdotes from an abortion survivor and a mother whose child 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 beyond the culture clashes and politics of Covid-19 that they have made him a Republican star.
Christy doesn't have a breakout moment
If there was one candidate expected to emerge Wednesday night with a defining moment, it was Christie. Nearly eight years ago, the former governor embarrassed Marco Rubio during the final debate before the New Hampshire primary by pointing out the Florida senator's habit of repeating lines. While Rubio received more votes than Christie in the Granite State (he placed fifth to Christie's sixth), the senator has struggled to shed his reputation as a roboticist.
Christie seemed ready to give Ramaswamy the same treatment. But while Christie's "ChatGPT" series was reminiscent of his performance in past debates, it failed to lure the Ohio businessman. Instead, Ramaswamy continued to attack him for his criticism of Trump.
Asked if he would support the former president if convicted of a crime, Christie said the party must stop "normalizing this behavior," prompting boos from the crowd.
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"His claim that Donald Trump is motivated by revenge and grievance would be much more credible if his entire campaign was not based on revenge and grievance against one man," Ramaswamy said.
Before the debate, Doug Meyer, a senior adviser to Christie's campaign, told CNN that the former New Jersey governor would make a Trump out of anyone who defended Trump. But Christie's attempt to attack the former president's main supporter on stage was met with more aggression from the crowd.
"You make me laugh," Christy said before he was drowned out by the sound of booing. The visuals didn't help: Fox News showed a split screen of Christie standing silently as Ramaswamy smiled until moderators asked the crowd to let him finish.
The candidates are discriminating against abortion
Some candidates supported a federal ban on abortion at 15 weeks. Some said he was against efforts to pass a national ban. And no one has said outright that they would sign a federal ban on six-week abortions even if they had passed similar laws as governors.
More than a year after the Supreme Court rejected Roe v. Wade, abortion policy remains a sensitive issue for Republican candidates torn between the need to demonstrate their anti-abortion bona fide and confront the reality of a political landscape where voters have rejected strict rules. abortion restrictions and the candidates who endorsed them.
At one end of the spectrum was Haley, who battled with Pence over whether to pass a federal ban. Haley called on the other candidates to "be honest" with the American people about the slim chances of 60 senators overcoming the problem and passing a federal abortion ban. Instead, he pushed for consensus on issues such as encouraging adoption and the right for doctors and nurses with moral objections to the procedure not to perform it.
"Consent is the opposite of leadership," Pence replied. But even Pence was willing to support a federal ban on abortions at 15 weeks, the limit offered in a bill introduced last year by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
"The 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come," Pence said. Scott also upheld a 15-week stage ban.
Two candidates who enacted a six-week abortion ban -- 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 Tenth 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 is going to 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 avoid the Jan. 6 question after pressure from Pence
When moderators asked DeSantis if Pence was right to reject Trump's lobbying campaign to nullify the 2020 presidential election, the Florida governor tried to avoid him, ignoring questions and complaining about the "militarization" of the federal government.
But Pence persisted and put DeSandis on the spot.
“The American people deserve to know if everyone on this stage agrees that on that day I fulfilled my oath to the Constitution. There is no more important duty, so answer the question,” he said.
“Mike did his duty. I don't have a problem with him,” DeSantis said, trying to move quickly.
The moment shows how wary the Florida governor is about alienating Trump's base.
Christie, however, scoffed at DeSantis' response, calling it a "made up speech."
He said Pence “doesn't deserve the credit. they deserve our thanks as Americans."
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Haley is leaning toward the general election
Haley, a former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations under the Trump administration, took the stage Wednesday with a message that spoke more directly to a general constituency than to her opponents.
What's not so clear is whether he did enough to impress Republican voters to get him there.
Haley opposed the federal abortion ban, saying the reality of the Senate's 60-vote threshold to break the line and the need for a House majority means a "consensus" is necessary on the issue. She also said that contraceptives should be available to all women.
She was one of the few candidates who acknowledged that climate change is real.
She was the first to criticize Trump by name, pointing to increased spending during his presidency. He praised Pence's actions on January 6, 2021, despite Trump's pressure on the former vice president to seek to overturn the 2020 election result. Haley also called his former boss the "ugliest politician in America."
"We can't win the general election that way," he said.
And he criticized Ramaswamy during an exchange about Russia, while Haley defended US support for Ukraine.
"You have no foreign policy experience and it shows," he said in one of the night's more animated exchanges.
Scott sticks to his Mr. routine. Good Boy
Scott's plan for entering the debate was to maintain his "kill 'em nice" attitude. During the first part of the conversation, he did. The problem was that this approach kept him out of most trades. While the other candidates debated and fought over abortion, Ukraine, or whether Trump should be pardoned, Scott didn't really engage. He tried to introduce himself with warnings about the "militarization" of the federal government and crime in the United States. But all his comments and arguments faded into the background when candidates stacked for Ramaswamy or Christie praised Pence for his actions on January 6, 2021.
When Scott had a chance to weigh in on the southern border, illegal immigration and fentanyl, he gave a lengthy response about how important and easy it would be to finish Trump's border wall.
"As the next president of the United States, I will complete this border wall," Scott said, expanding on every word of that last sentence. He paused for applause. They did not exist.
Before the debate, Republican strategists argued that this was the approach Scott wanted to take because he is his authentic self. The question now is whether the South Carolina senator will follow through.
This story has been updated with additional reports.