5 Takeaways From the First Republican Presidential Debate

Eight Republican presidential candidates clashed over abortion, foreign policy, and the economy, and President Donald Trump.
5 Takeaways From the First Republican Presidential Debate
Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Ivan Pentchoukov
8/24/2023
Updated:
8/25/2023
0:00

Eight Republican presidential candidates clashed over abortion, foreign policy, and the economy on Aug. 23, and while the night ended with no clear favorite, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy stole the spotlight in the contest to challenge former President Donald Trump, the undisputable favorite to win the party’s primary election.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Ramaswamy’s success at standing out will resonate with the voters. Should he catch up to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the field of the runner-ups would be even less defined than it was prior to the debate.

President Trump, with a 41-point lead over Mr. DeSantis and more over the rest of the field, opted to skip the debate.

Capitalizing on his grip on the mainstream media he openly detests, the former president diverted some attention from the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by opining on acutely controversial topics in an interview with Tucker Carlson: impeachment by his own party, assassination, and civil war.

President Trump’s opponents, meanwhile, largely avoided mentioning him until the hosts posed a direct question about the four indictments against him.

Here are the five takeaways from the debate.

Ramaswamy Steals the Spotlight

Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramswamy shared the podiums on center stage based on their positions in the polls, though both are well behind President Trump. Most of the attacks from other candidates nonetheless landed on Mr. Ramaswamy, handing him opportunities to respond and, with that, more total time on the microphone than the Florida governor.
Mr. DeSantis took the stage after several months of declining polling. In President Trump’s shadow, the other candidates likewise struggled for relevancy, with Mr. Ramaswamy emerging as the leader of the pack, challenging Mr. DeSantis for second place, based on polling averages maintained by RealClearPolitics.

The Florida governor, who did not engage in any heated exchanges with the others on stage, appeared to have been outshined by Mr. Ramaswamy when the entrepreneur took anti-establishment and contrarian positions.

When asked if the candidates oppose the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine in the war against Russia, Mr. Ramaswamy held his hand high, while Mr. DeSantis’s wavered midway. Mr. DeSantis said that American support should be contingent on Europe pulling its weight, while Mr. Ramaswamy said American support for the Ukraine war is driving the alliance between Russia and China.

He was also the first to boldly raise his hand when the hosts asked the debaters whether they’d back President Trump in case of a conviction. The other candidates appeared to glance around and take his lead.

Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Mr. Ramaswamy put former Vice President Mike Pence and the others on the defensive early on, pointing out that he is the only political outsider in the room.

“I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for,” Mr. Ramaswamy said, calling the others on stage “super PAC puppets.”

Vice President Pence appeared to be the most combative of the candidates on stage, interrupting his opponents several times and prompting the hosts to reassert control of the stage. The former vice president repeatedly tussled with Mr. Ramaswamy.

“Now is not the time for on the job training,” Vice President Pence said. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

Other candidates likewise took jabs at Mr. Ramaswamy later in the debate. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie interrupted Mr. Ramaswamy when the entrepreneur described climate change as a hoax.

“I’ve had enough today of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT, standing up here and the last person at one of these debates, Bret, 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,” Mr. Christie said.

“Give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” Mr. Ramaswamy shot back. “And you’ll help elect me too, just like you did to Obama. Give me that bear hug.”

Former President Donald Trump leaves the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 12, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Former President Donald Trump leaves the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 12, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

‘The Elephant Not in the Room’

The debate inevitably turned to the topic of President Trump, with Fox News co-host Bret Baier introducing the former president as “the elephant not in the room.”

Mr. Baier then asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support President Trump as the party’s candidate if he was convicted in a court of law as part of one of the four cases against him.

Six of the eight candidates raised their hands. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Mr. Christie opted out.

“Here’s the bottom line. Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Mr. Christie said, prompting boos from the audience that “the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”

Mr. Ramaswamy raised his hand to respond and called President Trump “the best president of the 21st century.”

“And Chris Christie, honest to God, 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 one man,” Mr. Ramaswamy said, earning cheers from the crowd.

Mr. Christie’s response was stopped in its tracks by overwhelming boos from the audience, which the hosts had to address before he could continue.

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Pence ‘Did the Right Thing’

There was general consensus among the candidates that Vice President Pence did the right thing by not going along with President Trump’s suggestion to challenge the slates of electors for then-candidate Joe Biden on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. DeSantis concurred on that question only after the hosts repeatedly pressed him.

“This election is not about January 6, 2021. It’s about January 20, 2025, when the next president is going to take office,” Mr. DeSantis said after the hosts reminded him to answer the question.

When Vice President Pence revived the topic and asked Mr. DeSantis to address it, the Florida governor said he “answered this before.”

“Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” Mr. DeSantis said. “But here’s the thing. Is this what we’re going to be focusing on moving forward, the rehashing of this? I’ll tell you, the Democrats would love that, and they will win if we let them get away with it.”

Mr. Christie took a clear position with a slight jab at the evasive take from Mr. DeSantis.

“Mike stood for the Constitution,” Mr. Christie said. “And he deserves not grudging credit, he deserves our thanks as Americans.”

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

No Consensus on National Abortion Ban

All of the candidates on stage said they were pro-life, but there was no agreement on the idea of a federal abortion ban.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argued that the idea is implausible because Republicans don’t have the numbers in the House or Senate to push through such a law. She instead pointed to areas of consensus.

“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions?” Ms. Haley suggested. “Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortion shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”

Mr. DeSantis, who signed a heartbeat bill this spring and campaigns on supporting pro-life efforts around the country, would not answer whether he would back a national law of similar nature.

“I’m going to stand on the side of life,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Look, I understand Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to do differently. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”

Vice President Pence countered that there is popular support for the idea among Americans and positioned abortion as a moral issue not worth compromising on.

“To be honest with you Nikki, you’re my friend, but consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Mr. Pence said.

“When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn’t just send it to the states only. It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue.”

Republican presidential candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy speak during a break in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy speak during a break in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

‘Rich Men From North of Richmond’

In a nod to a resurgence of conservatives in the culture war, the moderators began the debate with a question based on the chart-topping song “Rich Men From North of Richmond.”

A question about why the recording is “striking a nerve in this country,” sparked a discussion about “Bidenomics” among participants of the Republican presidential primary debate.

Mr. Baier first directed the question to Mr. DeSantis.

“We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline,“ Mr. DeSantis said, ”with understanding we must reverse Bidenomics so that middle-class families have a chance to succeed again.

“We also cannot succeed when the Congress spends trillions and trillions of dollars. Those rich men north of Richmond have put us in this situation,” Mr. DeSantis continued, noting that, if elected, he will make the United States “energy dominant again.”

The hosts then posted iterations of the question to the other candidates. Mr. Christie agreed with Mr. DeSantis but touted his credentials as a governor who succeeded in winning in and running a blue state.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) argued that President Biden’s “Bidenomics” policy has sapped spending power from American families via inflation.

“We can stop that by turning the spigot off in Washington, sending the money back to the states, and allowing the decisions to be made at their own houses,” Mr. Scott said.

Ms. Haley blamed Republicans and Democrats alike for runaway federal spending.

“You have Ron DeSantis, you’ve got Tim Scott, you’ve got Mike Pence—they all voted to raise the debt, and Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt. And our kids are never going to forgive us for this,” Ms. Haley added.

Vice President Pence defended the record of the Trump-Pence administration and attributed the spending to the pandemic

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, whose appearance lamented “the $1.2 trillion of Green New Deal spending buried in the Inflation Creation Act,” an apparent jab at the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. Mr. Burgum argued that the policy is helping China while harming the United States.

Dan Berger and Jeff Louderback contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated the candidates’ responses to support for the Ukraine war. The Epoch Times regrets the error.
Ivan is the national editor of The Epoch Times. He has reported for The Epoch Times on a variety of topics since 2011.
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