[Reuters] Eight contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination jockeyed for voters’ attention on Wednesday at the party’s first debate, while the front-runner Donald Trump, the former president, bypassed the event.
Here are four takeaways from the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stood at center stage, but he wasn’t at the center of the evening.
No candidate came into the debate facing more pressure than DeSantis. For weeks, his poll numbers have been sliding and the gap with Trump widening, jeopardizing his argument that he is voters’ preferred alternative to Trump.
But for much of the night, DeSantis, 44, stood and watched as his rivals seized the spotlight.
His fellow candidates threw few attacks his way, something that came as a surprise. Whether that was a sign that they weren’t threatened by his flagging candidacy or that they had other priorities was unclear.
Before the debate, DeSantis’ campaign told Reuters that all he needed to do was “hold serve” and stay steady – that he didn’t need a game-changing moment to reverse his downward momentum. The pressure was on the rest of the field to break out of single digits in national polls, an aide said.
It remains to be seen however whether DeSantis made a strong enough case to voters to boost his prospects in the weeks ahead.
NEW KID IN TOWN
In his first political debate, Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, was widely expected to be a wild card. He quickly learned that fire brings fire.
Ramaswamy, a businessman with no political experience who has been rising in some opinion polls, branded his rivals as “bought and paid for.” He also referred to DeSantis as a “super PAC puppet,” a dig at the deep-pocketed political action committee supporting his bid.
Mike Pence, 64, defending his four-year record as Trump’s vice president, tried to cut Ramaswamy down to size. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie, we don’t need to bring in people without experience,” Pence said.
Pence’s problem? There seemed to be more supporters of the outsider Ramaswamy in the audience than for Pence, illustrating the difficulty his candidacy has had mustering traction. His critique brought forth a cascade of boos.
That didn’t stop Christie, 60, who tried to finish Ramaswamy off much as he famously took down Senator Marco Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I’ve had enough, already tonight, of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said.
Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, assailed Ramaswamy’s lack of foreign policy experience after he said he would not support the U.S. role in Ukraine.
“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel,” Haley said. “You don’t do that to friends.”
‘ELEPHANT NOT IN THE ROOM’
Trump skipped the debate for a pre-recorded interview with conservative broadcaster Tucker Carlson posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, as the debate began.
His absence from the stage gave the debate the feel of an undercard in boxing, with the winner seeking a shot at the champ. Come Thursday, he is likely to wipe the debate from the news cycle when he turns himself in at a Georgia courthouse on racketeering charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Debate moderator Bret Baier of Fox News on Wednesday called Trump “the elephant not in the room.”
As the debate entered its second hour, the candidates on stage were asked about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
By and large, they fell into predictable patterns. Pence defended certifying the electoral vote in the U.S. Congress despite pressure from Trump. Christie, Trump’s most persistent critic, said his conduct was beneath “the office of president.” DeSantis argued the party needed to focus on the future.
Trump had a fierce defender in Ramaswamy, who called him “the best president of the 21st century” and vowed to pardon him if he is convicted of federal crimes.
Haley spoke to the millions of Republicans watching at home.
“We have to look at the fact that three quarters of Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden,” said Haley, 51. “And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”
ANGST OVER ABORTION
The debate found the candidates grappling with the best way to approach abortion as a political issue. While most on stage support restrictions in some form, the issue has proven to be a profound vulnerability for the party in recent general elections.
Haley, who said she was strongly anti-abortion, seemed to try to find a better way to speak to moderate voters on the topic.
“Can’t we all agree that we’re not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?” said Haley, the only woman on the debate stage. “Let’s treat this like a respectful issue that it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing that situation.”
DeSantis was pressed on his support for Florida’s six-week abortion ban, which he signed into law in April, a move some wealthy supporters found too extreme.
Asked if he would support a six-week federal ban, DeSantis was evasive, suggesting it was an issue that would be best left to the states but also saying he would support “the cause of life.”
Pence accused Haley of being too soft on the issue.
“Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he told her. “It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue.”
Haley countered by saying Pence wasn’t being honest with voters. She argued there would not be enough support in Congress for a federal ban.