Eight Republican presidential candidates who sought some kind of traction against former president Donald Trump faced off Wednesday night at the first debate of the 2024 GOP primary race in Milwaukee. Trump was absent.
Here’s who and what landed — and didn’t.
It could scarcely have turned out better for the absentee front-runner. He decided to skip the debate because it wasn’t worth his time — what with his nearly 40-point lead in the polls. And the candidates who want to beat him spent much of the debate pretending he wasn’t even in the race.
2024 presidential election
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Over nearly the whole first hour of the two-hour debate, Trump was invoked substantially only by one candidate, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who lumped him in with other Republicans onstage whom she accused of spending irresponsibly.
“The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us when they passed that $2.2 trillion covid stimulus bill,” Haley said. She mentioned her opponents’ votes to raise the debt ceiling and added, “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.”
Near the hour mark, Fox News’s moderators teased an upcoming segment about Trump’s indictments. The audience booed. What followed was a conversation that was less about the indictments and more about whether then-Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021.
When candidates did draw seeming contrasts, they often avoided using Trump’s name.
About the closest anyone got to a true broadside against Trump was former New Jersey governor Chris Christie calling Trump’s conduct — regardless of his guilt — “beneath the office of the president of the United States.”
Only he and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson said they wouldn’t support a convicted Trump in the general election, with Hutchinson floating the idea that Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol might have disqualified him to serve as president under the 14th Amendment.
The risk for Trump in not showing up was that he wouldn’t be able to defend himself. He didn’t have to.
In Trump’s absence, second-place Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed destined for most of the attacks. Instead, it was Ramaswamy, the momentum candidate in the race who has risen to third place.
Ramaswamy’s frequent foils worked most: Pence and Christie.
Both dismissed Ramaswamy as a political amateur. Christie compared Ramaswamy’s first answer, in which Ramaswamy called himself “a skinny guy with a funny last name,” to Barack Obama. (Obama indeed once said something very similar.) He also memorably labeled Ramaswamy “a guy who sounds like Chat GPT.”
But Ramaswamy was unfazed through just about all of it. And over and over again, he benefited from being pitted against the two most unpopular candidates in the field.
He got in perhaps the most pronounced defense of Trump, accusing Christie of “blindly bashing Trump without an iota of vision for this country.” It was a line that DeSantis’s super PAC wanted its candidate to land, according to a memo leaked last week, but Ramaswamy beat him to it.
Ramaswamy also frequently cut in, gaming relatively lax enforcement of the debate rules to make himself the center of attention.
If there were uneasy moments for Ramaswamy, it was when the candidates — including Haley — pressed him on his dovish approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” Haley said, earning loud applause.
Haley also accused him of not standing by U.S. allies like Israel because he said he wanted to ultimately not have to send the country aid. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley added, again to loud applause.
But it was about the only moment that the audience wasn’t on Ramaswamy’s side.
Pence’s Jan. 6 decision
The candidates did subtly break with Trump en masse on a major issue: his continued claim that Pence could have helped him overturn the election on Jan. 6.
Every candidate who was asked about it said Pence did the right thing: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Christie, Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and DeSantis.
DeSantis’s endorsement was less ample, though, who said after some pressing from Pence: “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him. But here’s the thing: Is this what we’re going to be focusing on?”
Christie said later: “Mike Pence stood for the Constitution. And he deserves not grudging credit; he deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office and the Constitution of the United States before personal, political and unfair pressure.”
The Florida governor ceded center stage to Ramaswamy for most of the night, and that’s not what he needed.
If he had beneficial moments, they were when he positioned himself as the anti-covid-shutdown candidate. He also sought subtle contrasts with Trump, citing his landslide Florida reelection win in 2022 and saying, “You don’t take in someone like [coronavirus task force member Anthony Fauci] and coddle him.”
But this is also a guy who badly needs to arrest his steady slide in this race. He needed this debate more than anyone, but it just wasn’t memorable in any way, shape or form.
The GOP’s political pride
Haley spent much of the debate painting a relatively bleak picture of the GOP’s political status.
She said it didn’t have a leg to stand on in criticizing Democrats for excessive spending. She called its 2024 front-runner, Trump, “the most disliked politician in America.” And she spent much of a discussion on abortion downplaying the party’s ability to enact its agenda.
“When you’re talking about a federal ban, be honest with the American people: We haven’t had 45 pro-life senators in over 100 years,” she said, adding that “you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”
Others advocating federal bans pushed back, but Haley doubled down on her point that the party just hasn’t won this issue enough to be able to do such things.
Haley launched her campaign making similar points about the GOP’s many popular-vote losses — seven of the last eight presidential elections, including both of Trump’s races. And while her display Wednesday night might not have done her too much good — who wants to be told what they’ve done wrong or can’t do? — she at least tried to give her party a wake-up call.
Mike Pence and Tim Scott
Both have at least somewhat plausible claims to being formidable candidates — Pence as a former vice president and Scott as seemingly the most broadly agreeable candidate onstage — but both have languished in the low to mid-single digits.
But like DeSantis, neither really showed much.
Pence tried to make the case that he is the tried-and-true conservative in the race, but he seemed to be making a case to a Republican Party that doesn’t really exist anymore.
Scott suffered from the same affliction. He gave arguably the most memorable answer for the antiabortion crowd, promoting a federal ban while saying it was wrong to allow states like California and New York not to have any restrictions. But he was largely a spectator.
The cable news station whose journalistic credibility is already tarnished by a momentous $787.5 million settlement in the Dominion lawsuit didn’t exactly acquit itself.
Candidates repeatedly disregarded the debate rules, with little in the way of an attempt to keep the proceedings on track. When candidates talked over moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as they tried to move on, the moderators often just relented and gave them the stage.
But the problems were most evident in the moderators’ handling of hand-raising questions — a good and helpful entry at any debate.
The first time they requested such responses, DeSantis objected to the format, and they let him do it, declining to make the request again.
Later, they asked whether the candidates would support Trump in the general election if he is convicted. Only Christie and Hutchinson declined, but both DeSantis and Pence were slow to raise their hands. And for some reason, there was no follow-up with them.