Nine months after former President Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring for the 2024 presidential nomination, his rivals finally had the opportunity to appear together for the first Republican debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
With Trump shunning the debate stage, the candidates who did attend traded some of their strongest blows yet in the race and clarified their positions on abortion, Trump’s legal woes, Ukraine, and other key issues.
These were some of the highlights of the first Republican presidential debate in the 2024 campaign.
While numerous Republicans on stage slammed Democrats and blue states, accusing them of promoting “abortion on-demand,” the debate highlighted the distance between the candidates’ positions.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, opened the conversation by saying she was pro-life, but she also lamented that the issue had been left to “unelected justices” and suggested a practical approach. “Let's be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes, it will take a majority of the House,” Haley said. “In order to do that, let's find consensus. Can't we all agree that we should ban late term abortions? Can't we all agree that we should encourage adoptions?”
Asked if he would support a federal ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy—the limit that would be enacted by a bill he signed in Florida—Gov. Ron DeSantis did not say he would. “I’m going to stand on the side of life,” DeSantis replied. “I understand Wisconsin is gonna do it different than Texas.”
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum also said he would leave the issue up to the states. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, meanwhile, suggested that both the states and Congress have a role to play in restricting abortion.
Former Vice President Mike Pence took the stance furthest to the right onstage, emphasizing his faith-based approach to the issue and saying the issue should not be left up to the states. “After I gave my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I opened up the book and I read, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,’” Pence said, “And I knew from that moment on the cause of life had to be my cause.”
“Nikki, you’re my friend, but consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Pence continued, circling back to Haley’s earlier answer.
Trump’s legal woes
The candidates largely managed to avoid talking about the absent frontrunner for nearly an hour. But halfway through the debate, moderator Bret Baier said they had to address the “elephant not in the room” head-on.
Trump this year became the first U.S. President to be indicted in the nation’s 234-year history—and has since broken that record three more times. He has now been charged in four separate criminal cases related to his business and political activities, bringing his total criminal charges to date to 91.
The cases are expected to play out over the coming months, setting up a long string of legal battles that will overlap with next year’s presidential primaries. In New York, Trump faces 34 felony counts over allegations that he falsified business records to conceal hush-money payments to a porn star. He’s also facing 40 felony counts in Florida for allegedly hoarding classified documents and obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them, and four counts in Washington related to his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Most recently, the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga. charged Trump with 13 felony counts in connection to his alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election result in that state.
To participate in the debate, the candidates all had to sign a loyalty pledge agreeing to support the party’s eventual nominee, whoever it might be. Asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the nominee if he’s convicted, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s hand shot up, followed by Haley’s, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s and Burgum’s. As DeSantis looked down the line, he slowly raised his hand too, followed by Pence. Only former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s and Hutchinson’s hand remained lowered.
“Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States,” Christie said of Trump, eliciting some boos from the audience in Milwaukee. The audience booed Hutchinson as well.
Ramaswamy defended the former President, calling him "the best president of the 21st century.”
Later, DeSantis initially sidestepped a question of whether Pence did the right thing by refusing Trump’s request to unilaterally reject Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election—conduct at issue in Trump’s latest indictment. Trump’s wide-ranging effort to hold onto power reached a crescendo on Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and disrupted the Electoral College certification. DeSantis said the election is about Jan. 20, 2025—not 2021—but after being pressed he answered that “Mike did his duty, I got no beef with him.”
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. In recent months, Biden has been rolling out his economic pitch to Americans.
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.”
Newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate who has rocketed to second place in some polls, faced a slew of attacks from opponents as he sought to introduce himself on the national stage.
After Ramaswamy’s name sparked scattered screams and his first response of the night drew sustained cheers, Pence slammed him for suggesting a President can’t do everything. When Ramaswamy said he didn’t understand the critique, Pence replied that he would go slower. “I sometimes struggle with reading comprehension,” Ramaswamy quipped.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence continued, prompting “ooohs” from the audience. “We don't need to bring in a rookie. We don't need to bring in people without experience.”
Minutes later, Ramaswamy suggested that all of his rivals are “bought and paid for.”
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” said Christie.
Momentarily, the debate descended into crosstalk. “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” Haley said.
Pence and Ramaswamy continued to spar later on over whether America needs a new national identity, while Christie and Ramaswamy mixed it up on the Trump prosecutions. “You make me laugh,” Christie said, before momentarily being drowned out by boos from the audience. “You’ve never done anything to try to advance the interests of this government except to put yourself forward as a candidate tonight.”
It got tenser when Haley attacked Ramaswamy over foreign policy. Initially, she slammed his lack of commitment to Ukraine, suggesting that Russian President Vladmir Putin killed Yevgeny Prigozhin on Wednesday. “This guy is a murderer, and you are choosing a murderer,” she said.
For several seconds, the two candidates talked over each other, with Haley accusing him of wanting to defund Israel. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” she said, eliciting cheers that drowned out the beginning of Ramaswamy’s rebuttal.
When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would not support increased funding for the war in Ukraine, only DeSantis and Ramaswamy did so.
“I will have Europe pull their weight,” the Florida Governor said. “Our support should be contingent on them doing it.”
“This is disastrous, that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent … the invasion of our own southern border,” Ramaswamy said.
He continued by highlighting foreign threats from China and Russia and stating that he found it offensive that politicians on the stage traveled to Kyiv without visiting several American cities. Christie and Pence both traveled to Ukraine this summer.
Christie, Pence, and Haley all voiced their support for Ukraine.
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