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First GOP debate: Ramaswamy stands out, DeSantis quiet, Trump absent

Republican candidates held their first in-person debate Wednesday.
First GOP 2024 presidential debate begins in Milwaukee
Posted at 7:22 PM, Aug 23, 2023

Candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential race met in person for the first time on Wednesday on the GOP debate stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On the stage Wednesday were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur and activist Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

The debate was moderated by Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

Christie and Hutchinson were met with boos from the audience when they were introduced. Both candidates are among the most anti-Trump voices on the Republican campaign trail this cycle.

Economic policy

Candidates were asked to articulate their economic policies. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Americans "are working hard, and you can’t afford groceries, a car or a new home." Chris Christie concurred, but also said he would be able to build more consensus on policy because he was "elected as a conservative Republican in a blue state."

Nikki Haley criticized fellow candidates who endorsed or oversaw increases in the federal debt.

"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,” Haley said, and made a nod to her accounting degree from Clemson: "So, you tell me. Who are the big spenders? I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House."

Pandemic response

DeSantis criticized "how this federal government handled COVID-19 by locking down this economy." He said that he had "kept Florida open" during the pandemic, and said "As your president, I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down."

Climate change

Ramaswamy called initiatives to reduce carbon emissions “a wet blanket on our economy," causing Christie to accuse him of sounding like an artificial intelligence chat program.

Haley acknowledged that climate change is real and ongoing, and advocated for higher pressure on countries like China and India to address global emissions.

Abortion

Haley, the only woman in the GOP race this year, called for a "consensus" on abortion policy, saying it would be unlikely that a federal abortion ban would pass without increased support from the U.S. Senate.

She said the nation needs to "humanize the issue and stop demonizing" it.

Pence, who supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, disagreed, saying "consensus is the opposite of leadership" in the case of abortion.

DeSantis, who signed a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida, acknowledged that such a sharp restriction may set Republicans back in a general election race. But he said "you’ve got to do what you think is right."

On Donald Trump and Jan. 6

Candidates were asked to raise their hand if they would support Donald Trump as the 2024 GOP nominee for president.

Six of eight raised their hands, while Chris Christie half-raised his and Asa Hutchinson kept his hand down.

Asked whether they supported then-Vice President Mike Pence's actions during the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, candidates largely agreed that he had done the right thing by refusing to cooperate with Trump's demands to halt the certification of votes.

Ramaswamy in the spotlight

Thirty-eight-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is a newcomer to politics, who spent time at the debate setting himself apart from other candidates.

He spoke of his parents, who moved to the U.S., and of his founding billion-dollar companies.

"I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for," he said, and declared the other candidates "super PAC puppets."

The war in Ukraine

Ramaswamy was the only candidate to call for a decrease in U.S. funding for Ukraine as it battles Russia's invasion.

"I think this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should be using those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States," he said.

He criticized fellow candidates for visiting Ukraine to meet with the country's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy instead of locations in the U.S. that deserve federal attention.

"I think we have to put the interests of Americans first, secure our own border instead of somebody else’s," he said.

Education

DeSantis spoke on policies his administration has enacted in Florida, to remove mentions of gender identity and critical race theory from classrooms.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, called for the Department of Education to be shuttered, for an end to teacher's unions, and for civics tests to be mandatory when graduating high school.

Notable absences

As the debate began, several candidates were absent.

Michigan businessman Perry Johnson and conservative radio host Larry Elder both filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, alleging they had been left out of the debate as a result of unfair treatment.

The Republican National Committee says eight candidates met the threshold required to attend the debate, which generally included gaining at least 1% of the vote in a nationally-recognized poll and a minimum of 40,000 donors spread across a certain number of states.

Candidates also had to commit to the debate within 48 hours of its scheduled time, and had to sign a pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee regardless of who it is.

SEE MORE: 2024 GOP rivals to meet in Atlanta just days after Trump's indictment

Former President Donald Trump was notably not at the debate.

Trump earlier in August declined to sign the loyalty pledge required of candidates at the debate, electing instead to hold a one-on-one interview with Tucker Carlson on Wednesday.

During the pre-taped interview, he furthered conspiracy theories and attacked his fellow candidates and Fox News.

"Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president?" He asked. "Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?"

Trump's influence at the debate was nonetheless unavoidable: Candidates were expected to explain on Wednesday how their approach to the presidency would differ from Trump's, as they battle to establish names for themselves in a field where Trump already holds a commanding lead.

Trump is considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination. In a recent Des Moines Register / NBC News / Mediacom poll of potential Republican Iowa caucusgoers, Trump was a significant leader for first choice on the ballot compared to the rest of the candidates in the field.

And Trump's support from within the party is strong. An AP/NORC poll released earlier this month found 63% of Republicans wanted Trump to run for the presidency, and 74% of Republicans said they would support him in November 2024.

SEE MORE: What do Trump's GOP competitors think about latest indictment?


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