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.
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
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:
Republican presidential candidates doubled down on criticism of President Joe Biden’s economic record, making it one of the most discussed topics of the night.
DeSantis opened the debate with a call to “reverse Bidenomics,” a term the White House has described as a broad collection of policies aimed at reviving and reshaping the economy to help the middle class, including bolstering manufacturing investments, expanding high-speed internet access, and cracking down on industries that charge so-called junk fees.
Scott also took a shot at Biden’s economic policies, claiming that Bidenomics has fueled inflation and that sending money back to states would help. “We can stop that by turning the spigot off in Washington,” he said.
Poll numbers show that most people remain skeptical of the President’s economic policy, with 36% of Americans saying they approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to an August AP/NORC poll. Persistent inflation has been one of the main sticking points in the public’s perception of his presidency.
Winning the economic debate may be the most important political objective for presidential candidates in the 2024 race. Democrats know that their chances of keeping the White House largely hinge on the economy and are severely diminished if voters see the Republican nominee as more capable and trusted on the issue.
Haley called out her own party for spending too many tax dollars on the stimulus package during the COVID-19 pandemic and criticized Trump for increasing the national debt by $8 trillion. “It’s time for an accountant in the White House,” she said.
When asked about the economy, DeSantis said that “a major reason” for inflation and the country’s debt is the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during the Trump Administration, when a number of states implemented lockdown and safety measures to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. “It was a mistake. It should’ve never happened,” DeSantis said. “And in Florida, we led the country out of lockdown. We kept our state free and open.”
All candidates except Christie and Hutchinson say they would support Trump if he’s convicted
Baier, the moderator, 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.
Attacks on Ramaswamy dominated the first hour
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have had the No. 1 spot on the debate stage. But it’s the man in the No. 2 spot, Vivek Ramaswamy, who’s taken the most incoming over the first hour of the two-hour melee in Milwaukee.
Mike Pence and Chris Christie piled on Ramaswamy, who entered the debate as a star on the rise while DeSantis has been sliding in polls. They’ve attacked him on his age and his political inexperience — Pence called Ramaswamy a “rookie,” Christie derided him as an “amateur” — as they look to stop his climb.
And the former federal prosecutor took Ramaswamy, who’s repeatedly pledged to pardon Trump if elected president, to task for defending the former president against the multiple criminal investigations he’s facing.
“You’ve never done anything to try to advance the interests of this government except to put yourself forward as a candidate tonight,” Christie said. “I did it as U.S. attorney, I did it as governor. And I am not going to bow to anyone.”
It all made DeSantis somewhat of an afterthought over the first hour, limiting his screen time and his speaking time.
Candidates debate 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.
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.
‘Climate change is a hoax’
GOP candidates during the first Republican debate argued over climate change, with Vivek Ramaswamy calling it a hoax.
“I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this,” Ramaswamy said, though he caught some shade. “Climate change is a hoax…The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”
Ramaswamy’s remarks were booed by the crowd and slammed by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who compared the entrepreneur to ChatGPT and former President Barack Obama.
The question started when Fox moderator Martha MacCallum asked: “Do you believe in human behavior causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.”
Before anyone could make a move, Ron DeSantis took the floor.
“We are not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate,” DeSantis said, before launching into a response bashing Biden and the media.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, meanwhile, called for China and India to cut emissions.
“First of all, we do care about clean air, clean water. We want to see that taken care of, but there is a right way to do it. The right way is first of all, yes, is climate change real? Yes, it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”