Eight Republican presidential candidates gathered for the first primary debate of the 2024 cycle, offering Americans one of their first major chances to start weighing who will be the GOP standard bearer next year.
What voters got was two hours of sharp elbows over everything from age to policy to, of course, former President Donald Trump.
On stage were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Knives out for Ramaswamy
The 38-year-old Ramaswamy was the target of more attacks than any other candidate on stage, and it wasn’t even close.
Ramaswamy, who’s never held office, took hits from Pence and Christie over his experience and Haley over his foreign policy.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence said. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in people without experience.”
Christie later accused the fast-spoken Ramaswamy of sounding “like ChatGPT,” referring to the popular digital tool, and Haley, after hitting him over his skepticism of aid to Ukraine and comments putting a timetable on support for Israel, accused him of having “no foreign policy experience and it shows.”
“Ramaswamy comes across like the guy in high school that everyone wanted to beat up. In fact, I thought Christie was going to slug him at one point,” said GOP strategist Bob Heckman.
Ramaswamy repeatedly sought to parry, touting his outsider status as a badge of honor and drawing audience applause for saying the U.S. should invest more to protect its own southern border rather than borders of countries overseas, a reference to U.S. support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion.
The barbs were clearly part of an attempt to knock Ramaswamy down a peg, but they also served as recognition of his recent surge in support and attention and he had the second-most speaking time, trailing only Pence.
Voters have organically brought up Ramaswamy to ABC News on the campaign trail, and national and statewide surveys have him rising, with FiveThirtyEight’s polling average showing him in third place by over 5 points, behind DeSantis and Trump.
Ramaswamy’s campaign touted his performance, with spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin texting ABC News, “Vivek: 1 GOP Establishment: 0.”
“This is my first time in a political debate. And I am thrilled with how it came out. We’ve over-exceeded my expectations,” Ramaswamy also boasted in the spin room after the debate.
Pence, in a departure, takes on attack-dog role
Pence, a seasoned politician known for his staid demeanor, instead, in a stark departure, took on the role of attack dog Wednesday night.
He directed almost all of his ire at Ramaswamy, though he did throw an elbow at the absent Trump, whom he once again said had no right to ask him to reverse the 2020 election results.
Beyond targeting Ramaswamy over his relative lack of experience, Pence also rebuked his foreign policy stances, arguing it was insulting to say that Washington had to choose between supporting Ukraine or border security.
“Anybody that thinks that we can’t solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on Earth,” Pence said.
Pence also repeatedly interrupted other candidates and the moderators to try to get in on whatever topic was being discussed, prompting moderator Bret Baier to interject while he was asking a question.
“Vice President Pence, it really doesn’t help,” Baier said.
Pence, despite his lengthy resume as a House member, governor and vice president, has struggled to break out of the single digits in national polling and surveys in Iowa, where he is hinging much of his campaign, and trying to have a breakout moment is one pathway to a polling boost — though it’s unclear if it worked.
“Pence was going for it big time tonight,” Heckman said. “Knows he needs to slug his way into the top tier.”
DeSantis fights for airtime
DeSantis still holds second place in most national and statewide polls, but recent rises by candidates like Ramaswamy and Scott have fueled questions over how safe his position as the main Trump alternative is.
Besides seeking to fend off other candidates’ rises, he’s also had to fend off negative headlines over his fundraising, staff changes and a monthslong campaign reboot — headlines that could have been put to bed by a strong performance.
In the end, DeSantis wasn’t attacked as much as expected but didn’t appear to falter, sticking to his talking points and ended up fighting for airtime — speaking for the fourth-longest amount of time, behind Pence, Ramaswamy and Christie.
That deficit is largely because he did not engage in many of the debate’s shouting matches, which his allies sought to tout.
“I think he did very well tonight and looked the most presidential of all the candidates. His answers were clear and concise, and he was able to introduce himself as an effective leader, a veteran, and family man. I really appreciate that he spoke directly to the voters instead of engaging in shouting matches like the other candidates,” said Nick Larossi, a Florida lobbyist close to DeSantis’ campaign.
Haley tries to carve out her own lane
Haley seemingly sought to be the adult in the room, touting her conservative bona fides, chiding Ramaswamy for failing to live up to GOP orthodoxy and trying to remain above the fray during some of the sharper exchanges.
At one point, when Christie and Ramaswamy were going back and forth, Haley tried to put a stop to it while at the same time pointing out that she was the only woman on stage.
“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.
She also sought to find some safe ground on one of the most difficult topics of the race: abortion.
Rather than get mired in the debate over how many weeks abortion should be allowed for, Haley instead reached for policies that polls show have more support among the broader electorate.
“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortion shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that 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 like the respectful issue that it is,” she said.
Some strategists ABC News spoke to said they viewed Haley as a winner in the debate — something that was easier given her stubbornly low polling and relatedly low expectations.
“Nikki Haley helped herself the most by the impressive amount of prep she did. I think other camps will take more seriously how much prep is needed to break through on a stage where everyone is basically saying the same thing all the time,” said Gail Gitcho, a GOP strategist and veteran of presidential campaigns who used to work for Ramaswamy’s campaign.
Still some discomfort over Jan. 6
There still appeared to be some discomfort over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, a seminal event that President Joe Biden is expected to highlight in the general election.
When the moderators asked if Pence had done his duty on Jan. 6 by not overturning the election, requesting that those who agreed raise their hands, DeSantis stepped in to prevent the candidates from having to do so.
Many of the candidates ultimately agreed that Pence obeyed his constitutional oath that day, though Hutchinson did draw boos when he called the riot that day an “insurrection.”
DeSantis ultimately said he did think Pence “did his duty.”
“I got no beef with him,” he said.
No consensus on abortion, a little more on Ukraine
Abortion remained a sticky subject for the candidates and underscored the lack of consensus heading into 2024.
Haley wouldn’t say what kind of timetable on restrictions she would support — but said a federal ban was unrealistic. Burgum also said he wouldn’t sign a national ban despite having signed a six-week ban into law in North Dakota.
Pence, meanwhile insisted that there must be a minimum federal standard, and Scott said there should be a national 15-week limit.
On Ukraine, there appeared to be more agreement
Most of the candidates said they would support more aid to Kyiv, though DeSantis focused mostly on making sure Europe beefs up its share of the support.
Ramaswamy, meanwhile, was the only candidate who said he wouldn’t support more aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Trump gets less focus than anticipated but benefits from no major game-changers
Baier had teased that Trump would get top billing in the debate, despite his absence, and some of the fieriest exchanges occurred during the section over whether the candidates would support him as the nominee if he were convicted of a crime.
Six of the eight raised their hands to say they would.
Christie raised eyebrows over his repeated attacks against the former president, and Ramaswamy reiterated his defense of Trump. Other candidates took a vaguer tact of urging voters to look forward.
Still, Trump was not spoken of nearly as much as was anticipated, and overall, the former president could be viewed as a winner of the debate given his hefty polling lead and lack of a fundamental change in the field stemming from the Wednesday event.
“All of the ‘who won’ talk is conjecture without Trump there,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee staffer and former top aide to House GOP leadership. “This is rearranging the deck chairs on a boat that’s tied to the dock.”