Republicans Clamor for Attention in a Rollicking First Debate: Candidates Try To Steer Clear of Trump, Wheel on Ramaswamy

‘Most of the candidates had a moment tonight,’ Fox News’ Sean Hannity says after the debate.

AP/Morry Gash
Republican presidential candidates at the primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel on August 23, 2023, at Milwaukee. AP/Morry Gash

The eight Republicans in the debate tonight will fan out across the country buoyed by a rollicking performance on the stage at Milwaukee, where they clamored for attention by yelling over each other while discussing issues ranging from Ukraine to the indictments of President Trump to crime to the southern border. The insurgent candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, took the most heat from his fellow candidates.

Vice President Pence and Mr. Ramaswamy had some of the most tense exchanges, especially on the issue of the war in Ukraine. “I have news for you, Mike: the USSR does not exist any more,” Mr. Ramaswamy said after the former vice president defended his own support for Ukraine. “The real threat we face today is Communist China. The Russia-China alliance is the greatest military threat we face.”

Governor Haley also took aim at Mr. Ramaswamy over Ukraine after she called for more aid to the besieged European nation. “The problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is that he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to surrender Taiwan to China, and he wants to stop giving money to Israel,” the former United Nations Ambassador said, adding that he is “choosing a murderer,” President Putin, over a democratic nation. 

Mr. Ramaswamy shot back, saying, “I wish you well with your future on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.”

Governor Christie, the man who has built his campaign on criticizing the former president, took aim at Mr. Ramaswamy early in the debate. “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” the former New Jersey governor said, scoring big laughs from the audience. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speak at the same time during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.
Governor DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy at the debate. AP/Morry Gash

Mr. Ramaswamy opened the debate by describing himself as a “skinny guy with a funny name,” which is similar to the “skinny kid with a funny name” phrase that President Obama used to describe himself at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Mr. Christie retorted, referring to the former president. 

Most candidates voiced their support for Ukraine, even if grudgingly. Governor DeSantis, when asked by moderators if he would send more money to the war effort, simply said he would have “Europe pull their weight” in the financing of the war. “I’m not gonna send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to the southern border and we’re going to leave them stone-cold dead,” Mr. DeSantis said of drug smugglers from south of the border, dodging the question. 

At many points, the debates’ moderators, Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, had to scold both candidates and the audience alike for their rowdiness. When Mr. Ramaswamy declared climate change “a hoax” to a chorus of boos, Mr. Baier turned his chair to face the audience, urging them to stop their outbursts. 

The issue of abortion was clearly a point of contention for the GOP candidates, with some endorsing a federal ban on the practice in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, who himself signed a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, said he would not sign any federal ban on the practice. 

“Freedom and liberty,” he said, are paramount for states in this country. “What’s going to work in New York is never going to work in North Dakota,” he added. 

Mr. Pence quickly took aim at the North Dakota governor. “It’s not just a states’ issue, it’s a moral issue,” he said in response to Mr. Burgum. Mr. Pence described a 15-week abortion ban as the “minimum standard” and “an idea whose time has come.” 

The former vice president also took aim at Mrs. Haley, who called for a “national consensus” on abortion policy that would set federal guidelines. “No Republican president can ban abortions” because it requires 60 votes in the Senate and a majority of the House, a composition which currently is not in place. “Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he said to Mrs. Haley, referring to her as a friend. She replied that “every state can determine a different outcome here.”

Mr. DeSantis, who signed a six-week abortion ban earlier this year, did not commit to signing a federal ban, but said he was “proud” to sign what he called the “heartbeat bill.” When asked for specifics about federal legislation, he simply said he “will support the cause of life.”

When asked about the indictments of Mr. Trump, candidates took the opportunity to criticize the Biden Department of Justice for going after the former president. Mr. Christie, however, laid the blame for the messy indictments squarely on Mr. Trump. “Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Mr. Christie said, eliciting a chorus of boos from the audience. “Whether or not you believe this conduct is right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the President of the United States.”

Mr. Ramaswamy said he would immediately pardon the former president. “We cannot set a precedent where the party in power can use police force,” Mr. Ramaswamy said. 

Most of the candidates also embraced calls to slash the administrative state, reserving special disdain for the Department of Education. When asked whether or not Mr. Pence acted correctly on January 6, 2021 by declining Mr. Trump’s request that he refuse to certify Mr. Biden’s win, most of the debate participants pivoted to discuss their plans for slashing executive branch staff. 

Senator Scott used the opportunity to defend the former vice president’s actions, but also said he would fire the FBI director, Christopher Wray. Mr. Ramaswamy took it even one step further, saying he would “abolish” the FBI entirely. Mr. DeSantis said that “Mike did his duty,” but that the real problem is that local prosecutors are not doing their job in going after “violent criminals.” He praised himself for suspending two liberal prosecutors in Florida.

Mr. Christie called the question of Mr. Trump’s actions in the lead-up to January 6 “the argument that we need to have in this party before we can move on to the issues.”

The New York Sun

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