Eight Republican presidential candidates squared off at the first Republican debate of the presidential primary cycle on Thursday in Milwaukee, where they made the case for their candidacies before their largest audience to date.
The candidates sparred over a variety of issues ranging from abortion and the economy to Ukraine and education. But the most contentious exchanges came when the discussion turned to former President Donald Trump, who skipped the debate and was the “elephant not in the room,” as Fox News anchor and moderator Bret Baier put it.
The eight Republicans were asked whether they would support Trump as the party’s nominee even if he was convicted of a crime. All but two said they would.
The candidates that participated in Thursday’s debate were:
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
- North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum
- Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
- Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
- Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
- Former Vice President Mike Pence
- Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy
- Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina
Trump instead taped an interview with Tucker Carlson, which was released to coincide with the debate. A CBS News poll released Sunday showed Trump with a wide lead over the rest of the field, earning the support of 62% of likely Republican primary voters. DeSantis was a distant second, earning 16% support.
In Milwaukee, many candidates took aim at Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and political newcomer who has been ascending in the polls in recent weeks. In one notable line, Pence called him a “rookie” who would need “on-the-job training” in the White House.
Here are the highlights from the first GOP presidential debate, which aired on Fox News and lasted about two hours:
Nikki Haley criticizes Trump and other Republicans over government spending
Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, came out swinging against several of her Republican opponents over the nation’s fiscal state, singling out DeSantis, Scott and Pence for voting on legislation that raised the national debt. She also took aim directly at Trump for adding $8 trillion to the debt during his only term.
“Our kids are never going to forgive us for this,” said Haley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration.
She pointed the finger at Republicans for approving a $2.2 trillion COVID relief bill during Trump’s presidency and for bringing back earmarks. In the 2024 budget, Republicans requested $7.4 billion in earmarks compared to Democrats’ $2.8 billion.
“You tell me, who are the big spenders?” Haley said. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.”
Haley has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and served as the chief financial officer of her family’s clothing business.
Pence takes aim at Ramaswamy: “We don’t need to bring in a rookie”
Pence was the first to target Ramaswamy early in the debate, calling him a “rookie” who lacks experience to be president.
“I was the first person in this race to say that we’ve got to deal with the long term national debt issues. You’ve got people on this stage that won’t even talk about issues like Social Security and Medicare. Vivek, you recently said a president can’t do everything. Well, I’ve got news for you, Vivek. I’ve been in the hallway. I’ve been in the West Wing. The president of the United States has to confront every crisis facing America.”
Ramaswamy fired back that solving the country’s economic issues “isn’t that complicated” and listed off a number of his solutions.
“I’m not sure I exactly understood Mike Pence, his comment, but I’ll let you all parse that out,” he said.
“I’ll go slower this time,” Pence said.
“You know, I sometimes struggle with reading comprehension,” Ramaswamy quipped.
Pence added: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in people without experience”
Candidates debate federal ban on abortion
The presidential hopefuls sparred for the first time face-to-face on abortion rights and whether there should be a federal law banning abortion, an issue that is likely to be key in the 2024 general election. Among likely Republican voters, though, candidates’ plans to stop abortion ranked the lowest in importance of any policy goals that were included in a new CBS News poll.
Haley began by characterizing herself as “unapologetically pro-life,” but said the issue of abortion is personal. She urged her fellow Republican candidates to be honest with the American people about the prospects of a federal abortion ban passing the House and Senate, given that in the upper chamber, 60 votes are needed for legislation to advance.
“Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes,” Haley said.
The former governor of South Carolina — where the legislature passed a law outlawing most abortions once embryonic cardiac activity is detected — said lawmakers need to find consensus on abortion-related measures, including banning late-term abortions, encouraging adoptions, making contraception available and ensuring women who get an abortion are not punished for doing so.
DeSantis, who signed Florida’s bill banning abortions after six weeks in April, said he was proud to sign that measure into law and said he believes “in a culture of life.”
Asked whether he would sign a federal law that outlawed abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, DeSantis said he would “stand on the side of life,” but said he understands a state like Wisconsin is going to approach the issue of abortion differently than Texas.
“I will support the cause of life as governor and as president,” the Florida governor said.
Scott reiterated his support for a nationwide 15-week limit, while Pence, too, said a ban on abortions after 15 weeks is “an idea whose time has come.”
Burgum, who signed a near-total ban on abortion in North Dakota, renewed his opposition to a federal law outlawing abortion, as he believes the issue should be left to each state.
“We need to get back to freedom and liberty for the people,” he said.
All candidates except Christie and Hutchinson say they would support Trump if he’s convicted
Baier, the moderator, brought up what he called the “elephant not in the room,” and asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would still support Trump as the Republican presidential nominee even if he is convicted of a crime. The former president faces dozens of felony charges across two state cases and two federal cases.
All candidates on stage except Hutchinson and Christie ultimately raised their hands. Pence was the last candidate to do so. (Christie appeared to raise his finger to get the attention of the moderators.)
“Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct,” said Christie, the most vocal Trump critic among the field. “Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”
Christie and Ramaswamy got into a row over support for Trump, and Christie blasted Trump for saying it would be OK to suspend the Constitution.
“I will always stand up for our Constitution, regardless of the political pressure,” Christie said.
On the topic of Jan. 6, 2021, Scott said Pence did the right thing by allowing for the certification of votes. But Scott said one of his first actions as president would be to fire Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“We need lady justice to wear a blindfold,” Scott said.
Haley explained her answer by saying, “I trust the American people. Let them vote, let them decide.” But she said the reality of the polling is, Trump is the most “disliked” politician in America, and the American people believe it’s time to move on.
Ramaswamy posed a question of his own, asking Pence if he would pardon Trump on day one. Pence asked Ramswamy why he would assume Trump would be convicted of any crimes.
“If I’m president of the United States, we’ll give fair consideration to any pardon request,” Pence said.
Candidates answer whether they believe Pence did right thing on Jan. 6
A majority of the candidates said they believed Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, by refusing to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory as he presided over the ceremonial certification of the results at the U.S. Capitol.
Christie, Scott, Hutchinson and Burgum all said the former vice president did the right thing.
“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. And the argument that we need to have in this party before we can move on to the issues … is, we have to dispense with the person who said we need to suspend the Constitution to put forward his political career,” Christie said. “Mike Pence said no, and he deserves credit for it.”
DeSantis declined to give a straight answer after repeated pressing from the debate moderators.
“Mike did his duty and I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said.
Ramaswamy was not asked the question, but jumped in to defend Trump and reiterated that he would pardon Trump if he is elected president.
Ramaswamy, DeSantis say they would not support an increase in aid to Ukraine
Asked which of the eight candidates would not support an increase of funding to Ukraine, Ramaswamy and DeSantis were the only two to raise their hands.
“I would have Europe step up and do their job,” DeSantis said, adding that U.S. support for Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s aggression should be contingent on Europe boosting its assistance.
Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy said more American resources should be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border instead of Kyiv.
Ramaswamy took veiled swipes at Christie and Pence for visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling him his GOP opponents’ “pope.”
In response, Christie said he visited the country to see the impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people, and Pence suggested Ramaswamy lacks the foreign policy experience needed to serve as the commander in chief.
“If we do the giveaway that you want to give to Putin, to give him this land, it’s not going to be too long before he rolls across a NATO border,” Pence said, adding that U.S. troops will then be sent to defend NATO allies. “We achieve peace through strength, and America needs to stand for freedom.”
Haley lambasted Ramaswamy for his opposition to more assistance to Ukraine, saying he is “choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.”
“He will make America less safe,” she said of Ramaswamy. “Under your watch, you will make America less safe.”
Haley noted that 3.5% of the U.S. defense budget has been given to Ukraine, which she called a “pro-America country that was invaded by a thug,” Putin.
Christie scoffs at question about UFOs
During the closing “lightning round,” moderator Martha MacCallum said she had a question that was “a little out of this world” for Christie: “Do you believe that the recent spike in UFO encounters —”
“I get the UFO question? Come on, man,” Christie interrupted, drawing laughter from the crowd.
MacCallum pointed to a recent congressional hearing about UAPs, the government’s formal name for UFOs, and said “people are taking this a lot more seriously, and we’re hearing that there are things going on that people aren’t aware of.”
If Christie was president, MacCallum continued, “would you level with the American people about what the government knows about these possible encounters?”
“I think it’s horrible that just because I’m from New Jersey, you ask me about unidentified flying objects and Martians,” Christie joked. “The job of the president of the United States is to level with the American people about everything. The job of the president of the United States is to stand for truth. The job of the president of the United States is to be a role model for our children and grandchildren.”