MILWAUKEE — Former President Donald Trump’s notable absence from Wednesday night’s Republican debate shifted the spotlight towards eight candidates who quarreled on topics such as climate change, abortion and foreign policy for over two hours.
The debate occurred at Fiserv Forum with an audience of 40,000 people. Amidst frequent bouts of applause and boos, the Fox News moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, often found their voices buried.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and billionaire, took center stage with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Ramaswamy received heaping criticism from the other candidates, such as when former Vice President Mike Pence labeled him a “rookie” or when former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized his lack of foreign policy experience.
Pence defended his position against Trump, expressing that Trump said “to put [Trump] over the Constitution” during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and Pence “chose the [U.S.] Constitution.” All candidates sided with Pence with the exception of Ramaswamy.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie concurred on outspoken yet unpopular views about Trump’s election subversion charges.
“Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States,” Christie said. “Boo-ing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.”
Instead of attending the debate, Trump sat down with former Fox News show host Tucker Carlson to talk about poll numbers, his indictments and election turmoil in a prerecorded interview.
Republicans firmly backed Trump in polls preceding the debate.
Here are five takeaways from the first Republican presidential primary debate:
Ramaswamy creates memorable snapshots
Ramaswamy, a far-right conservative and biotech investor, brought several controversial assertions to the stage. He voiced desires such as a future pardon for Trump, which triggered immediate appraise from the audience.
Furthermore, he emphasized the need for a reformed American identity, displaying his commitment to tradition and patriotism.
“The U.S. Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedom in human history. That is what won us the American Revolution,” he said. The American Revolutionary War ended in 1783, and the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787 and enacted in 1789.
Ramaswamy also told CNN that Americans should be denied the right to vote until they pass a test based on their knowledge of American history.
Ramaswamy faced criticism from Christie, who called him a “guy who sounds like Chat GPT,” after he heard Ramaswamy denounce the climate change agenda as a “hoax.”
Despite the moderator pointing to evidence that the Atlantic Ocean hit 101 degrees off the coast of Florida and that a heat wave broke temperature records in the Southwest, Ramaswamy suggested the U.S. should continue to “drill, frack and burn coal.”
His unique ideology carried onward when the candidates discussed their judgements on the U.S. involvement in Ukraine.
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv to their pope, Zelenskyy, without doing the same for the people in Maui or the south side of Chicago,” Ramaswamy said.
DeSantis drowned out
DeSantis was expected to be the focal point of Wednesday’s debate as the top-polling candidate to take the stage.
Although he displayed a strong aptitude to debate the issue of climate change instead of using the hand-raise technique, he appeared hesitant when tackling several pressing issues such as Trump and abortion.
Candidates were asked whether they would still support Trump in the event he were to gain the Republican nomination despite potentially becoming a convicted felon. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Ramaswamy raised their hands while DeSantis half-raised before fully agreeing.
At another time, the moderators asked if Pence had acted properly on Jan. 6, 2021 by turning down Trump’s requests to overturn the election. DeSantis eventually declared “Mike did his duty, I got no beef with him.”
After the debate, conservative political commentator Candace Owens told The Daily Cardinal the stakes were highest for DeSantis, but his campaign “just missed the mark tonight.”
“His campaign has been floundering and hasn't found [its] footing quite yet and they did not do that on tonight’s debate stage.” she said. “Unfortunately, he seemed like a fish out of water. He seemed really rehearsed, really robotic and failed to connect a lot.”
GOP ushers in mixed abortion beliefs
After overturning Roe v. Wade, Republicans found themselves in a bit of a pickle: they can prioritize their stance against reproductive access, or they can prioritize their commitment to states’ rights.
The argument for abortion revolved around whether to ban the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy on a state or federal level.
Pence, Hutchinson and Scott argued for a national 15-week ban.
“It's not a states-only issue. It's a moral issue,” Pence said. “Can’t we have a minimum standard in every state in the nation?”
When the moderators asked DeSantis to elaborate on his stance toward a federal abortion ban, he said he will stand “on the side of life.”
DeSantis has supported a six-week abortion ban in Florida but has not endorsed a federal ban.
“I understand Wisconsin is going to do it differently than Texas, I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to be different, but I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”
Burgum was the sole candidate who rejected that the federal government should regulate abortion access, saying the issue should be dealt with entirely on a state level.
Haley, the only woman on the debate stage, said Republicans must create abortion policy that will foster bipartisanship in Congress.
“Let’s find consensus,” she said. “Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available and can’t we all agree we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion. Let’s treat this like the respect issue it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation.”
Pence fought back saying “consensus is the opposite of leadership.”
Nikki Haley’s centrist agenda
Haley, compared to her rivals, urged a more moderate platform in an attempt to gather support.
She stood out as one of the few candidates who acknowledged climate change is real and criticized Trump, categorizing him as the “most disliked politician in America.”
In a head-to-head bash with Ramswamy over Ukraine funding, Haley stated that less than 3.5% of the U.S. defense budget has been allocated towards Ukraine, while 11 European countries have funded more in terms of percent per GDP.
“[Ramaswamy] wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends,” she said. “You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.”
Ramaswamy told the audience that Haley has been “pushing this lie all week.”
Haley, who served as a U.N. Ambassador under Trump responded that Ramaswamy has “no foreign policy experience and it shows.”
The GOP encourages the youth vote
Various Republican figures held open discussions and delivered speeches before the debate at a Young America’s Foundation (YAF) event designed to motivate young voters around the Republican agenda.
Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told the Cardinal the future of America is going down a “very dangerous path.” His message to young voters was to “seek the truth and defend your freedom.”
“Too many people are willingling giving away their freedom, voting away their freedom for a very false sense of security,” he said.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the Cardinal young voters must consider “raw knowledge” and “emotion” when deciding on a candidate.
“Look at the candidates who have specific plans, what they are gonna do to actually not just make your life better, but the lives around you better,” he said.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.