Fox News moderator Bret Breier said that former president Donald Trump was “the elephant not in the room.” And this comment was enough to ignite the first debate between the Republican primary candidates for the 2024 presidential election. The tension reached its highest points when the eight candidates were asked if they would support Trump if he won the primaries, but had been convicted of a crime. That question led to another one on whether former vice president Mike Pence, who taking part in the debate, was right to stand up to Trump in defense of the Constitution on January 6, the day of the assault on the Capitol. All those who spoke out supported Pence.
The candidates debated Ukraine, climate change, abortion and the economy. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is second in the polls but lagging far behind the former president, tried to attack President Joe Biden, avoid direct criticism of Trump, defend the use of “lethal force” against drug cartels at the border and highlight the achievements of his administration, but it was his moment of indecision that went viral. And even though he is currently Trump’s closest rival, he failed to dominate the debate. His performance Wednesday night is not likely to help him close the gap with Trump.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — the surprise of the Republican race who is polling in third place — took the spotlight as an avowed Trumpist with praise for the former president, his climate denialism and his proposal to stop supporting Ukraine. Although he had to swallow a few sharp retorts, he upstaged DeSantis.
Mike Pence used much of his time defending his loyalty to the Constitution by refusing to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Former ambassador to the U.N. under Trump, Nikki Haley, defended her foreign policy experience and rejected a law banning abortion nationwide. Former governors Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson were heckled for criticizing Trump. Senator Tim Scott failed to stand out, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum contributed little.
Until an hour into the debate, Trump, who had preferred not to participate, had barely been mentioned. Then, the presenters asked the participants to raise their hands if they would support Trump should he be nominated by the party, but was also convicted. The question raised the temperature of the debate even more in sweltering Milwaukee, which was on alert for extreme heat. All but Christie and Hutchinson raised their hands.
WOW - Ron had to check out the rest of the stage to decide whether or not to raise his hand.— Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) August 24, 2023
However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was slow to raise his hand and appeared to be looking first at what others were doing, a moment criticized by the Trump campaign as “pathetic.” DeSantis was uncomfortable on that ground, even more so after criticizing Trump supporters. “This election is not about January 6 of 2021, it’s about January 20 of 2025,” when the next president will take office, he said. The governor also tried not to wade into whether Pence had done the right thing. “We’ve got to look forward,” he insisted. Under pressure from both the former vice president and the moderators, DeSantis finally said, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” prompting Pence to reply, “I’m relieved.”
It was the moment of greatest tension. The former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, a fierce Trump critic, was much more direct, saying that Pence “deserves not grudging credit, he deserves our thanks as Americans.” According to Christie, whether the criminal charges against Trump are justified or not, his conduct under scrutiny is unworthy of the office of president of the United States. “Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” said Christie to an increasingly loud chorus of boos. “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth,” he added.
In the leaked script of his strategy, DeSantis was supposed to defend the former president in the face of a Christie attack, but Ramaswamy jumped in faster amid audience applause: “Your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against [him].”
Hutchinson was also booed, but made a more legal than technical argument, noting that if Trump is convicted he could be disqualified from office. “I’m not going to support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony, or who has been disqualified under our Constitution,” Hutchinson said.
The exchange on Trump lasted about 10 minutes, but it was the key moment of a debate marked by his absence. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy made the staunchest defense of the former president, describing him as the “best president of the 21st century,” and said he was the victim of the political weaponization of the justice system — the same claim made by Trump and his supporters. DeSantis, Haley and Burgum tried to change the subject.
Ron DeSantis, second in the polls, opened and closed the debate on center stage, along with Vivek Ramaswamy, third in voting intentions. Fox spared no expense and the debate was a major production at the Fiserv Forum, the arena where Giannis Antetokoumpo’s Milwaukee Bucks play, which was decked out for the occasion, with the stands full of guests and donors. A drone even hovered over the stage, offering spectacular shots of the debate, while the candidates speeches were alternated with videos projected on giant screens. The presence of eight candidates on stage gave the appearance of a very open primary, but in reality it is overwhelmingly dominated by Trump, even if the presidential hopefuls ignored him for most of the debate.
Attacking Biden was part of DeSantis’ strategy, and the candidate had been following it to the letter since his first speech. “We are a country in decline,” he said in his opening remarks. DeSantis also used the debate to go after Biden’s son Hunter, saying he made “hundreds of thousands of dollars on lousy paintings” while Americans “are working hard, and you can’t afford groceries a car or a new home.” The Florida governor also bragged about his administration and mentioned his family, which many strategists see as an asset to his campaign, as well as his experience in the armed forces. But nothing he said was memorable.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a successful entrepreneur, presented himself as a supporter of the free market and the embodiment of the American dream. “Let me just address a question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight,” the biotech entrepreneur said. “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?” “I’m the outsider on this stage. I’m not a politician. My parents came to this country 40 years ago with no money,” he said. “I have gone on to found multi-billion dollar companies. That is the American dream.”
Christie and Pence attacked Ramaswamy repeatedly, but both are unpopular with the Republican base, so that may end up working in his favor. “The last person in one of these debates [...] who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here’ was Barack Obama. And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur tendencies tonight,” said Christie.
Pence also went on the attack. “Let me explain it to you, Vivek,” Pence responded in an exchange. “I’ll go slower this time.” The former vice president added that this was no time for a “rookie” or to be doing “on-the-job training.” Ramaswamy responded that professional politicians were puppets of the political action committees (PACs) that fund them.
Division on Ukraine
Ramaswamy was the only one who did not raise his hand when the candidates were asked if they would be willing to give more funding to Ukraine in the face of war with Russia. “I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv to their Pope Zelenskiy without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago or Kensington,” Ramaswamy said. “I think we have to put the interests of Americans first, secure our own border instead of somebody else’s,” he added.
This prompted a merciless rebuke from Pence: “Anybody that thinks that we can’t solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth.”
Nikki Haley, who was US ambassador to the U.N. under Trump, also fired back, accusing Ramaswamy of wanting to hand over Ukraine to Russia and allowing China to invade Taiwan. “You are choosing a murderer,” she said, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I wish you well in your future career on the boards of Lockheed [Martin] and Raytheon,” Ramaswamy replied, referring to major defense contractors. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said, earning applause from the crowd.
DeSantis sought for a middle way, saying he would cut off the tap if the Europeans do not take an additional step to “pull their own weight.”
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