WASHINGTON: Eight contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination jockeyed for voters’ attention on Wednesday at the party’s first debate, absent the frontrunner Donald Trump, the former president, who bypassed the event.
Here are three takeaways from the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
New kid in town
In his first political debate, Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, was widely expected to be a wild card. He quickly found out that fire brings fire.
Ramaswamy, a businessman with no political experience who has been rising in some opinion polls, branded his rivals “professional politicians” and “bought and paid for.” That brought howls of protest from others on the stage.
He also referred to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, 44, as a “super PAC puppet.” DeSantis has been backed throughout his run by a deep-pocketed political action committee Never Back Down.
Mike Pence, 64, defending his four-year record as Trump’s vice-president, was the first to try to cut Ramaswamy down to size. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie, we don’t need to bring in people without experience,” Pence said.
Pence’s problem? There seemed to be more supporters of the outsider Ramaswamy in the audience than for the former vice-president, illustrating the difficulty his candidacy has had mustering traction. His critique brought forth a cascade of boos.
That didn’t stop former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, 60, who tried to finish Ramaswamy off much as he famously took down Senator Marco Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I’ve had enough, already tonight, of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said.
Then Christie went further.
“And the last person in one of these debates . . . who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here,’ was (Democrat) Barack Obama. And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight,” Christie said.
‘Elephant not in the room’
Not only did Trump skip the debate, he counter-programmed it. The former host of NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice” sat down with conservative broadcaster Tucker Carlson for an interview that was posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, just as the debate began.
But Trump’s shadow loomed large. Moderator Bret Baier of Fox News called him “the elephant not in the room.”
As the debate entered its second hour, the candidates on stage were asked about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
By and large, they fell into predictable patterns. Pence defended certifying the electoral vote in the US Congress despite pressure from Trump. Christie, Trump’s most persistent critic, said his conduct was beneath “the office of president.” DeSantis argued the party needed to focus on the future.
Trump had a fierce defender in Ramaswamy, who called him “the best president of the 21st century” and vowed to pardon him if he is convicted of federal crimes. He later argued against US support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, a key Trump talking point that separates him from many in the party.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, however, sought to speak frankly to the millions of Republicans watching at home.
“We have to look at the fact that three quarters of Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden,” said Haley, 51. “And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”
How do you run on the economy when the Biden administration insists it’s in good shape and inflation is cooling? For the candidates on the debate stage, it was by talking about on how regular Americans are struggling with the cost of items such as groceries, fuel and cars.
The first question of the debate gave the Republicans a free shot at criticising so-called “Bidenomics,” the nickname given to Democratic president Joe Biden’s economic policies.
It was a topic DeSantis had been waiting for. He has increasingly been raising the issue of affordability as he has re-tooled his campaign message to try to gain ground on Trump. And he was ready with a line.
“If you are working hard and you can’t afford groceries, a car or a new home while Hunter Biden can make hundreds of thousands of dollars on lousy paintings, that is wrong,” DeSantis said, referring to the president’s son.
Many Americans who voted for Biden in 2020 say they believe the economy has fared poorly under his stewardship and that they might not vote for him in the 2024 election, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month.
Forty-two percent of Biden’s 2020 voters in the poll said the economy was “worse” than it was in 2020, compared to 33% who said it was “better” and 24% who said it was “about the same.”