DemDaily: The Debate Download

August 25, 2023

In the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential primary, eight candidates squared off in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Wednesday night -- in a chaotic two-hour showdown that is likely to reshuffle the deck and the donors for those aspiring to the runner-up slot behind former President Donald Trump.

FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos post-debate poll showed Nikki Haley was the big winner of the evening, with a 17% increase in favorability among Republican voters, while Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy were seen as the most impressive performers.

Trump snubbed the event, leaving open the opportunity for some to take his mantle, with all attempting to out-MAGA each other.

The often turbulent event was held at the Fiserv Forum, which will be home to the July 2024 Republican National Convention, and moderated by FOX News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. The stated rule of one minute per candidate for responses -- with 30 seconds for rebuttal by named candidates -- was rarely enforced.

On The Stage: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Baier and MacCallum opened with the economy, triggering candidates’ attacks on “Bidenomics” and, as espoused by Scott, "turning the spigot off in Washington."

Ramaswamy, who dominated the stage throughout the evening on both offense and defense, used his opening salvo to introduce himself as the non-establishment alternative: a successful entrepreneur who has lived the increasingly vulnerable American dream. “For a long time we have had professional politicians in the Republican party who have been running from something. Now is our moment to start running to something" -- to a new generation untainted by politics as usual.

DeSantis, who is leading the onstage slate in polling, came out of the gate swinging -- railing against the fate of the middle class under the current White House, inflation, gas prices, Hunter Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci. He appeared to fade over the evening, however, struggling to walk a line between inserting himself in the limelight and avoiding condemnation of Trump. Despite what appeared to be one of the most disappointing performances of the night, if not missed opportunities, DeSantis scored well among GOP debate watchers, providing hope for his otherwise tumultuous campaign.

Christie touted his record as governor of New Jersey, cutting taxes and debt, while assailing Washington for spending the people’s money. "Truth and accountability,” he said, “are the things we need to fight waste." Christie was widely expected to be Trump's most virulent critic going into the debate, but pivoted more often to Ramaswamy, to the chagrin of political observers.

Haley, whose star rose considerably Wednesday night, took an aggressive but practical approach, demanding "truth" for the American people on the debt. “Biden didn’t do this to us, our Republicans did this too,” admonishing Pence, DeSantis and Scott’s support for the COVID stimulus bill. In the first attack of the night against the former president, Haley also noted that “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt...I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House."

In response to accusations regarding his role in raising the deficit, Pence listed the “accomplishments” of the Trump-Pence administration, including the appointment of three conservative justices to the US Supreme Court. Trumpeting his bona fides as “the best prepared, most tested and most qualified conservative,” Pence was among the most articulate, albeit least remarkable of the candidates, with a few notable moments to his credit -- including his clashes with Ramaswamy.

In one of his lengthy and unchecked diatribes, Ramaswamy said “This isn’t that complicated guys -- unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear, put people back to work, reform the US Fed, stabilize the US dollar,” while promising to “wage war on the federal administrative state.”

To that, Pence broke his characteristic stalwart presence, offering, "Let me explain it to you. I will go slower this time...Joe Biden has weakened this country at home and abroad. Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie...without experience."

Ramaswamy retaliated, asking the audience if they want “professional politicians, superPAC puppets” or "a patriot who speaks the truth?”

Burgum and Hutchinson, who both stressed their experience as conservative governors, were largely lost in the debate fray as each vainly attempted to distinguish themselves on stage.

“An event like this is not about who won or who lost. It is about who was able to achieve the goal, the trainings, the conversations, the preparation, all of that in the debate process that leads up to -- do you look presidential at the end of the night? Do you look like someone that the country at the end of the cay say, ‘I can see him in the Oval Office.’” - Former RNC Chairman and former Maryland Governor Michael Steele

Other Highlights
When asked by moderators who among the candidates believed that human behavior caused climate change, none responded with a show of hands.

DeSantis attempted to take command before sidestepping to a condemnation of Biden and corporate media, and Scott, who was remarkably subdued during the debate, segued into the future of America’s children and his own story growing up in a single-parent household mired in poverty.

Ramaswamy declared, “I'm the only person on the stage who isn't bought and paid for, so I can say this -- the climate change agenda is a hoax.” Christie responded with, “I've had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.”

Haley acknowledging climate change was real, called for emissions cuts by China and India. To Baier she said, “I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’”

Abortion clocked the most time, with Haley, the only woman on the stage, reprimanding the all-male field for clamoring to assert their opposition to women’s reproductive rights -- a necessary stance for making it out of the primary, but an issue at the forefront for many general election voters -- 64% of which support legal abortion in all or most cases.

While some avoided endorsing a federal abortion ban, maintaining that the overturning of Roe v. Wade rendered it a state concern, Pence declared it a “moral issue” under God, falsely claiming that 70% of Americans support a minimum 15-week ban at the federal level.

Haley, who is “unapologetically pro-life,” chastised Pence, saying, “Let's be honest with the American people...No Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban all those state laws. Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”

On the issue of crimeChristie blamed the current network of US Attorneys for failing to prosecute “violent” criminals like Hunter Biden, while DeSantis claimed the “radical left-wing” DAs had been funded by progressive philanthropist George Soros -- an accusation routinely employed in far-right antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The debate turned to “criminals" crossing the border, allegedly fueling the fentanyl drug crisis. Hutchinson, who formerly served as Director of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) under George W. Bush, shone briefly for centering on the plight of inner cities and the need for “education of our young people... and addiction counseling.” Leaning on his state's rustic image, Burgum contrasted the crime wave across major cities with the need to get back to the "accountability and transparency" of small-town values "to get this country back on track again."

The candidates' divide on Ukraine was on full display, with Ramaswamy and DeSantis saying they would cut off funding to Kyiv while others defended aid to the embattled nation under siege by Russia.

On educationDeSantis promoted his record of highly publicized assaults on Florida public school curriculum related to African American history and LGBTQ+ issues, repeating his campaign trail mantra of "education, not indoctrination." Christie and Scott took aim at teachers' unions, a perennial GOP target, accusing them of "putting themselves before our kids" and "locking them in failing schools," respectively.

DeSantisRamaswamyPence and Burgum vowed to abolish of the Department of Education, with Ramaswamy calling the agency "the head of the snake," while Pence vaguely alluding to "school choice" as an alternative.

It was not until the second half of the evening, however, that moderators got to the main event -- Donald Trump, "the elephant not in the room," as described by MacCallum.

Candidate Speaking Time in Minutes: Mike Pence: 12:37, Vivek Ramaswamy: 11:47, Chris Christie: 11:22, Ron DeSantis: 10:22, Nikki Haley: 8:41, Tim Scott: 8:15, Doug Burgum: 8:00, and Asa Hutchinson: 07:33.

The Elephant Not in the Room
When asked by Baier if they would support Trump as the party’s nominee -- even if he was convicted of a crime -- 6 of 8 candidates raised their hands, with only Christie and Hutchinson abstaining.

Christie said, “Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct…Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States.” In response to jeers from the audience, Christie said, “You know, this is the great thing about this country. Booing is allowed, but it doesn't change the truth.“

Hutchinson said, “over a year ago, I said that Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being a result of what happened on January 6th. Conservative legal scholars say he may be disqualified under the 14th a result of the insurrection...This is an issue," he said, "that we as a party have to face."

When asked, “Did Pence do the right thing on January 6?” Scott, Haley, Hutchinson and Burgum unequivocally endorsed his actions, and Christie praised Pence for upholding the constitution.

DeSantis skirted the question, saying, “It’s not about January 6, 2021, it’s about January 20, 2025, when the president is going to take office,” while later clarifying that “Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him.”

When Ramaswamy pressed Pence to join him in pledging to pardon Trump once in office, the former Vice President reiterated, “No one's above the law. [President Trump] asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution. And I always will. I had no right.”

But...“If I am president of the United States, we’ll give fair consideration to any pardon requests.”

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: Politico, Roll Call, ABC, AP, BBC, Fox, FiveThirtyEight, NPR

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