Takeaways from first GOP presidential debate

Eight Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night for the party’s first primary debate of the 2024 cycle.

Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderated a raucous debate, struggling at times to rein the candidates in and keep them to time limits as they sparred over topics like Ukraine and abortion — and knocked each other over their credentials and stances.

Former President Trump, the front-runner of the GOP race, declined to join them after much suspense over whether he’d participate, leaving his fellow competitors to jostle in what many see as a race for second place and what Trump’s campaign has framed as a fight to be his future running mate. 

Here are five takeaways from the first GOP presidential debate:

Pence surprises as center of debate 

Former Vice President Mike Pence delivered a more aggressive and memorable performance on Wednesday night than many expected, touting his experience in the Trump administration as he vies for the Oval Office against his former running mate.

Throughout the night, Pence got into a number of back-and-forths with the 38-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy, an upstart rival whom the former vice president swiped at over his relatively young age.

Pence was also the main focus of a question about his actions on Jan. 6, 2021. 

The candidates were asked whether they think Pence “did the right thing” on Jan. 6 in moving forward with the certification of the 2020 presidential election after he and Trump lost to President Biden. 

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Pence “deserves our thanks as Americans” for his actions that day, “for putting his oath of office and the Constitution of the United States before personal, political and unfair pressure.”

Challenged by Ramaswamy to promise to pardon Trump if the former president is convicted in one of his ongoing legal battles, Pence avoided a commitment, saying, “I don’t know why you assume Donald Trump will be convicted of these crimes.” 

Still, despite his strong showing on Wednesday night, Pence is unlikely to see much movement in the primary. He’s polling behind the former president and a handful of his fellow candidates and has so far drawn relatively little donor interest.

Ramaswamy becomes No. 1 target

Ramaswamy was a target in some of the night’s most contentious exchanges, taking heat from Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and Pence. 

“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,” Ramaswamy said after candidates were asked whether or not they believed human behavior is causing climate change. 

Christie interrupted to say he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” and knocked Ramaswamy’s opening line from earlier in the program.

“The last person in one of these debates … who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What is a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama. And I am afraid we are dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight,” Christie said.

Haley torched the novice candidate over his stance that the U.S. shouldn’t continue to back Ukraine against Russia’s ongoing war. 

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said amid a fiery back-and-forth. 

After Ramaswamy suggested that “this isn’t that complicated,” Pence touted his experience and argued that “now is not the time for on-the-job training.” 

“We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” Pence said in an apparent knock at the youngest candidate on stage.  

DeSantis fades into the background

Despite consistently polling as the top Republican presidential contender behind Trump, DeSantis mostly failed to make an impression during the debate. He notably avoided many direct attacks like those lobbed at Ramaswamy, who has risen to third place in some polling as DeSantis has appeared to slip. 

Candidates’ squabbles with Ramaswamy, some of which resulted in rebuttal time for the entrepreneur, cut down DeSantis’s screentime. 

DeSantis also skirted around a couple yes-or-no questions asked to the group of White House hopefuls. Asked to raise their hands if they believed human behavior causes climate change, the governor interrupted by saying, “Look, we’re not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate. I mean, I’m happy to take it to start.” He did not raise his hand. 

Asked whether Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, DeSantis said “this election is not about January 6th of 2021. It is about January 20th of 2025 when the next president is gonna take office.”

No breakout moments for many

While some candidates stood out on stage, both for their stances and for their war of words with competitors, others didn’t secure significant breakout moments. 

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott both avoided confrontations with other candidates. 

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only candidate to start to raise his hand when candidates were asked to do so if they believe human behavior is behind climate change. 

He and Christie were also the only candidates to keep their hands down when the White House hopefuls were asked whether or not they’d follow through on their candidate loyalty pledge and back Trump.

Will race change? Seems doubtful

Certain candidates might get a boost from their crowd-pleasing moments during the two-hour primary debate, but it seems doubtful the general dynamic of the race will change significantly.

Ahead of Wednesday night’s debate, strategists predicted the GOP race would be little changed by the first debate. Many see Trump as the party’s likely winner and the debate as a contest for who can stand out as a possible running mate for the eventual nominee. 

Trump has long boasted a significant lead in the polls that could be hard for the other candidates to catch up to, and his base has continued to support him even as he’s beleaguered by legal woes. 

The former president, who was absent from the debate stage, didn’t emerge as a central topic until the second half of the program, but he’s also set to suck up much of the public’s attention again on Thursday as he’s expected to surrender to authorities in Georgia for the case he faces there related to alleged efforts to intervene in the state’s 2020 election results.

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