Takeaways from the first Republican presidential primary debate
Aug 24, 2023, 8:00 AM | Updated: Sep 11, 2023, 11:16 am
(CNN) — With former President Donald Trump skipping the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate, eight of his primary rivals – most of them men wearing ties similar to the bright red one regularly worn by the former president – brawled for second-place status Wednesday night.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and first-time candidate, was alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the center of the stage — and he was the central figure for much of the night. Ramaswamy brawled with former Vice President Mike Pence over his experience, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley over foreign policy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over Trump, and more.
And because he has positioned himself as a defender of Trump, Ramaswamy was, at times, a stand-in for the former president, who momentarily ceded the stage Wednesday night but will take it back Thursday when he turns himself in at the Fulton County jail in Georgia as he faces election subversion charges.
The debate played out in front of a rowdy crowd of about 4,000 people at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The crowd’s reactions – including jeers and boos when candidates criticized Trump – at times drowned out the Fox News moderators.
Here are four takeaways from the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate:
Taking shots at Ramaswamy
With President Trump absent from Wednesday’s debate, the the early target of most of the debate participants was not DeSantis or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott or any candidate who has ever held elected office before. It was political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy. The first jab at the entrepreneur came from Pence: “Vivek, you recently said a president can’t do everything. Well, I’ve got news for you, Vivek. I’ve been in the hallway. I’ve been in the West Wing. The president of the United States has to confront every crisis facing America.”
That spurred a heated back-and-forth and light name-calling between the two candidates. Later, in the first bit of the debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy’s answers to something cranked out by ChatGPT. Christie then capitalized on Ramaswamy rhetorically asking what a little-known guy with a funny name was doing on the debate stage by pointing out that the quip sounded awfully like President Barack Obama’s old stump line about him being “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.”
The early pile-on at Ramaswamy is surprising. He’s new to politics. At the same time, recent polling has shown him rising in the primary polls over other candidates who have spent, in some cases, decades in electoral politics.
Drawing distinctions over abortion
Some candidates supported a 15-week federal abortion ban. Some said they were against efforts to pass a nationwide ban. And no one clearly stated they would sign a six-week federal abortion ban – even if they’d approved such laws as governors.
More than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion policy is still a tricky issue for Republican candidates caught between the need to demonstrate their anti-abortion bona fides and address the realities of the political landscape, where voters have rejected stringent abortion restrictions and the candidates who backed them.
At one end of the spectrum stood Haley, who sparred with Pence over the possibility of passing a federal ban. Haley called on the other candidates to “be honest” with the American people about the low odds of getting 60 senators to overcome a filibuster and approve a federal abortion ban. She instead pushed for consensus on issues such as encouraging adoption and allowing doctors and nurses with moral objections to the procedure the right not to perform them.
“Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Pence said in response. But even Pence wasn’t willing to go further than endorsing a 15-week federal abortion ban, the cutoff offered in a bill South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced last year.
“A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come,” Pence said. Scott also backed the 15-week ban onstage.
Two candidates who have signed six-week abortion bans into law – DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum – stopped short of saying they would do the same nationally. Burgum said his opposition to a national ban stems from his support for the 10th Amendment. DeSantis, asked if he would sign a federal six-week ban, simply said he would “stand on the side of life.”
“I understand Wisconsin will do it different than Texas,” DeSantis said. “But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”
Haley leans towards the general election
Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations under President Trump, brought onto the stage Wednesday a message that was geared more directly for a general electorate than those of her rivals.
What’s less clear is whether she did enough to impress Republican voters to get there.
Haley balked at a federal abortion ban, saying the reality of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to break the filibuster and the need for a House majority means “consensus” is necessary on the issue. She also said contraception 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 President Trump by name, pointing to rising spending during his presidency. She praised Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, despite Trump’s pressure on the former vice president to seek to overturn the 2020 election result. Haley also called her former boss the “most disliked politician in America.”
“We cannot win a general election that way,” she said.
And she hammered Ramaswamy during an exchange over Russia, as Haley defended the United States’ support for Ukraine.
“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” she said during one of the night’s most animated exchanges.
Scott sticks to Mr. Nice Guy routine
The plan for Scott going into the debate was to stick with his “kill ‘em with kindness” attitude. For the first part of the debate, he did that. The problem was that approach kept him out of most of the exchanges. While the other candidates were debating and skirmishing over abortion, Ukraine or whether former President Trump should be pardoned, Scott wasn’t really in it. He did try and insert himself with warnings about the “weaponization” of the federal government and crime in America. But all of his comments and arguments faded into the background as candidates piled on Ramaswamy or Christie praised Pence for his actions on January 6, 2021.
When Scott did get a chance to weigh in on the southern border, illegal immigration and fentanyl, he offered a long answer about how important and easy it would be to finish President Trump’s border wall.
“As the next president of the United States, I will make that border wall complete,” Scott said, extending each word in that concluding sentence. He paused for applause. There was none.
Ahead of the debate, Republican strategists argued that this was the approach Scott wanted to take because it’s his authentic self. The question now is if the South Carolina senator will stick with it going forward.