The first Republican presidential debate illustrated the deep divisions within the party, with the candidates on stage arguing over issues including when and how to best restrict abortion nationwide, U.S. support for Ukraine, and support for the party’s eventual 2024 nominee.
The eight candidates on the debate stage took swipes at each other in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, while also going after U.S. President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy and what they consider to be excessive government spending.
“Our country is in decline,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who stands in a distant second place behind Trump but ahead of the rest of the field. “We must reverse Bidenomics so that middle-class families have a chance to succeed again.”
While the economy has shown surprising resilience, defying recession predictions with a robust labour market, polls show many voters — including a plurality of those who supported Biden in 2020 — feel the economy has worsened during his first three years in office amid persistent inflation.
With the election more than 14 months away, Trump holds a wide lead among Republican voters in opinion polls despite his four criminal indictments.
The former president skipped the event for an interview with Tucker Carlson instead. He told Carlson: “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? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?”
With Trump absent, Republican candidates including tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who have enjoyed a bump in some state and national polls in recent weeks, were seeking to displace DeSantis as the most plausible Trump alternative.
“Do you want incremental reform, or do you want a revolution?” asked Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old political neophyte who has cast himself as an outsider even as he has been perhaps Trump’s biggest defender among the Republican candidates.
DeSantis under pressure
The pressure is greatest for DeSantis who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has since struggled to gain traction and is now fighting to maintain his distant second-place status.
Also on stage were former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former vice-president Mike Pence, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
The crowd booed Christie and Hutchinson as they were introduced. The two are among the most prominent anti-Trump candidates in the Republican field.
‘The elephant not in the room’
Nearly an hour into the debate, Fox showed a live image of Atlanta’s Fulton County jail, where Trump is set to surrender on charges on Thursday, drawing boos from the audience. The moderators said they’d spend a “brief moment about the elephant not in the room” and ask about the cases against Trump.
Those on stage were then asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he wins the Republican presidential nomination. Six of the candidates raised their hands, while Hutchinson kept his hand down and Christie half-raised his hand.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing misconduct. Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” said Christie, who has emerged as one of Trump’s harshest critics. He was promptly booed.
The candidates on stage were required to sign a pledge vowing to support the eventual nominee before joining Wednesday’s debate.
Pence gets support
Later, the candidates largely said they agreed with Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021. Pence eschewed then-President Trump’s demands to stop the certification of Biden’s election, a decision that led some in a mob of Trump supporters to chant for his hanging that day.
The answer from Scott was: “Absolutely.” DeSantis didn’t immediately answer the question, saying, “We’ve got to look forward,” but under pressure from both Pence and the moderators, he ultimately said, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” prompting Pence to reply, “I’m relieved.”
Christie leaped to Pence’s defence, saying the then-vice president “deserves not grudging credit, he deserves our thanks as Americans.” Haley agreed that Pence “did the right thing” and deserved credit, as did Burgum.
Climate change and ChatGPT
Earlier, Christie lashed out at Ramaswamy during a discussion on climate change, accusing him of sounding like an artificial intelligence chatbot after Ramaswamy called efforts against carbon energy “a wet blanket on our economy.”
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said. “The last person at one of these debates who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama. And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”
Ramaswamy responded, “Give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” a nod to the then-president placing his hand on Christie’s shoulder during a visit after Superstorm Sandy. “And you’ll help elect me just like you did to Obama too.”
Haley jumped in after the feisty exchange, distinguishing herself as the only woman on stage. “I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,'” she said, acknowledging that climate change is real and arguing that to address it, the U.S. needs to pressure China and India to lower their emissions.
Debate over abortion rights
All of the Republican candidates taking part in the debate say they oppose abortion, but their differences on where lines should be drawn became evident on stage.
Haley said there’s a need for “consensus” over abortion, noting that she feels it unlikely that a federal ban would pass until there are 60 senators who would support it. Haley, who often cites her own fertility struggles and the fact that her husband is adopted, says the U.S. needs to “humanize the issue and stop demonizing” it.
Pence challenged her position, saying that “consensus is the opposite of leadership” on the issue. Pence is the only major candidate who has said he supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant. In an interview with The Associated Press, Pence went even further, saying abortion should be banned even when a pregnancy isn’t viable.
DeSantis, who signed a six-week abortion ban into law, said “you’ve got to do what you think is right” when asked what he felt about potential criticism that such a narrow restriction could possibly harm Republican candidates in a general election.
Trump lashes out from afar
The primetime event was unfolding at a moment of reckoning for the Republican Party. Trump is the early front-runner in the race, raising serious questions about whether the party will have much of a competitive primary.
Yet Trump’s vulnerabilities in a general election are clear, particularly after four criminal indictments that charge him with hoarding classified documents, conspiring to overturn the 2020 election and making hush money payments to a porn actor and other women.
In his interview with Carlson, he praised the crowd he spoke to on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, before his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, saying, “There was love in that crowd. There was love and unity.”
He also called the four criminal cases he faces “nonsense.”
Trump’s standing in the primary has only increased as the charges have mounted, leaving the party on track — barring a stunning realignment — to nominate a candidate who would enter the race against Biden, a Democrat, in a potentially weak position.
Most of the candidates vowed to support Ukraine in its war with Russia, but the notable exception was Ramaswamy.
He suggested that sending such support when the U.S. hasn’t fixed its own problems was “disastrous.”
That drew rebukes from many of his rivals, including Haley, the former UN ambassador, who told the 38-year-old technology entrepreneur: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
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