MILWAUKEE - Eight presidential candidates displayed the fractures and mainstays of a post-Trump Republican Party in the first presidential primary debate of the 2024 election season Wednesday evening at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
The candidates touched on a range of topics and sparred with one another in ways that brought back memories of the 2016 Republican presidential primary debates but also highlighted former President Donald Trump’s lingering presence over the Republican Party.
Although candidates had tense moments on abortion policy and aid for Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion, they agreed authoritative leadership was needed to solve the nation’s top issues.
Here are the three issues that defined Wednesday’s debate:
Haley, Pence split on solution to Republicans’ abortion woes
The longest-discussed topic at the debate was an issue that has proved to be at the front of many voters’ minds in recent elections: abortion.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley took a relatively moderate approach to the issue. Although Haley said she was personally pro-life, she said individual women should be allowed to make limited decisions for themselves.
Haley floated a ban on 39- and 40-week abortions. However, abortions that late into a pregnancy are “no longer an option,” according to CBS News.
Haley’s position earned an immediate attack from former Vice President Mike Pence, whose personal brand and campaign issues are based heavily in his evangelical Christian faith.
Pence argued that “consensus is not leadership,” referencing Haley’s assertion that a consensus within the House of Representatives and Senate has to be reached before any federal legislation can go forward. Instead, he took a moral stance against abortion.
“When I gave my life to our heavenly father Jesus Christ, I knew that the cause of life had to be my cause,” Pence said.
This tracked with Pence’s response to other questions throughout the night, which touted his strict Christian faith commitments and experience during his time as Vice President. Pence positioned himself as the traditional candidate in this race as opposed to the outsider label popular in recent years among Republican candidates.
Candidates project authoritative leadership despite Trump’s absence
Multiple candidates on stage mirrored Pence’s firm-handed approach to leadership. Many candidates — including those currently serving as federal lawmakers — answered questions with policy proposals that would bypass Congress and Senate.
Florida Gov. Ron Desantis said he would authorize U.S. military forces to go into Mexico to take out cartel-related targets on day one of his administration.
Another proposal from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie included plans to have the U.S. Department of Justice take jurisdiction over criminal prosecutions in cities that, in his view, were being too lenient on violent offenders.
The candidates largely viewed their forceful tactics as a contrast to what they viewed as relaxed leadership from President Joe Biden.
Candidates waver on foreign policy, Ukraine aid
However, candidates preferred strong language over firm action in their foreign policy proposals.
Candidates split when asked which country is the biggest threat to the United States. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy argued that China posed the biggest threat to U.S. interests rather than Russia.
Ramaswamy focused specifically on the influence of China’s ruling Communist Party. Most other candidates took a hardline approach against Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed support for Ukraine in the current conflict.
In a comment that made its way to the forefront of post-debate discussion, Ramaswamy reiterated his position that the U.S. should pull all resources out of Ukraine and stop sending aid to the country.
His view is that the conflict between the two countries is something that should not involve the United States. This earned him swift rebuke from Christie, who used his rebuttal to mention his own trip to Ukraine and the horrors he had seen there.
Haley lambasted Ramaswamy for what she perceived as arrogance during a heated exchange.
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said.
Notably, Haley did not tout her own record on foreign policy affairs and didn’t mention her tenure as U.N. Ambassador, even when asked to comment after the debate.
Gabriella Hartlaub is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics and life & style reporting.