The first Republican debate was held Wednesday night, offering the non-Trump candidates a chance to plead their case for the nomination. How did they do?
The Missing Frontrunner: Former president and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump announced over the weekend that he would not participate in the primary debates. Instead of taking the stage, Trump sat down with Tucker Carlson (Right bias) for a prerecorded one-on-one interview that aired on X, formerly Twitter, while the debate aired live on Fox News (Right bias).
The Lineup: Eight candidates took the stage in the first debate: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Of those eight, DeSantis and Ramaswamy are the furthest ahead in the polls. On Wednesday night, Ramaswamy took advantage of his opportunity to address a national audience, playing up his youth and status as a Washington outsider and getting into a number of charged back-and-forth exchanges with the other candidates.
Ramaswamy was the target of the night for the rest of the pack, which came as a surprise to many observers given the fact that DeSantis is still seen as the main candidate threatening Trump.
The Trump Question: Speaking of Trump, few candidates appeared eager to go after the former president, who is leading the polls by a wide margin. The moderators asked about Trump only once, calling for the candidates to raise their hands if they would still support Trump if he were convicted in one of the four indictments he currently faces. Six out of eight said they would, with only Christie and Hutchinson dissenting. Christie was the most vocal Trump critic, which garnered him boos from the Wisconsin audience.
The Issues: While candidates broadly agreed on a range of standard Republican issues — cutting federal spending, securing the southern border, restricting women's sports to biological women — a few topics divided the stage, including a federal ban on abortion, which sparked debate between Haley and Pence. Ramaswamy at one point vowed to scale back aid to Ukraine, earning him criticism from some of the others.
How the Media Covered It: Across the spectrum, Ramaswamy was singled out as the star of the night for his eagerness to go after the other candidates and his response to attacks.
Despite not being present at the debate, Trump loomed large over coverage, with the single question asked by the moderators about him generating a large amount of media attention.
DeSantis' performance proved most polarizing. Many left-rated voices determined he did little to reverse his downward trend in the polls. Right-rated voices were split, with some arguing he effectively conveyed his work as governor without opening himself up to attack.
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Snippets from the Left
"Watching how Ramaswamy handles his new turn in the spotlight will be interesting. He’s charismatic, a smooth orator, irreverent, and funny. But it’s easy to imagine that his shtick will wear thin. Ramaswamy sounds good, but once you slow down and think about what he said, it often makes little sense or means nothing."
"The former president emerged from Wednesday night’s debate as the clear winner, even though he wasn’t there. He suffered no major surprise blows from the candidates onstage, was frequently defended by one of the loudest voices in the room (Vivek Ramaswamy), and after a question from moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, six of the eight candidates pledged to support him even if he is convicted of a crime."
Snippets from the Right
"The press corps and Democrats were disappointed because they wanted the debate, like they want the entire 2024 campaign, to be all about Donald Trump all the time. The former President will dominate the news again Thursday when he presents himself for booking at a Georgia courthouse. But at least for one night GOP voters were able to see that they have better choices."
"Americans got an uninterrupted view of the Republicans competing to be the one alternative to the former president without having to weigh each one against him–or his nicknames for them. Still, with a few exceptions, notably Chris Christie and Nikki Haley, the GOP rivals were pussycats when it came to dissecting Trump, reflecting the fact that they haven’t figured out how to criticize the former president without alienating his supporters."
Snippets from the Center
"One of the most significant points of the debate came when the moderators asked most of the candidates if they thought former Vice President Mike Pence had acted properly in overseeing the certification of the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021. Every candidate who was asked the question backed Pence, though sometimes with different levels of enthusiasm."
"While Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has consistently stood in second place in polls, albeit well behind Trump, it was Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur and political neophyte, who was at the center of many of the Fox News debate's most dramatic moments. Ramaswamy, a fierce Trump defender who is rising in national polls, faced plenty of incoming fire from his more experienced rivals, who appeared to view him as more of a threat than DeSantis."