The first Republican presidential debate was a fiery affair: Mike Pence and Chris Christie knocked Vivek Ramaswamy as a know-it-all novice; Nikki Haley went after fellow South Carolinian and others over out-of-control federal spending; and Ron DeSantis went all in touting his record in Florida on Covid and many other things.
Here’s a look at the key moments of the debate:
The first question was a softball about ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’
The first question at Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate wasn’t on abortion or foreign policy but today’s top hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond.”
The first question was directed toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and why the song struck a chord with so many Americans.
“Our country is in decline. This decline is not inevitable, it’s a choice,” DeSantis responded. “We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline.”
The song by Oliver Anthony Music appeared on social media earlier this month and has made an unprecedented leap to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. The song discusses inflation, high taxes and elite Americans he wants to hold accountable.
Haley touts effectiveness of being a woman
Nikki Haley was the only woman on the Milwaukee debate stage Wednesday night.
And, within the first half hour of the program, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador made sure people knew that — stepping into a spat between former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy on climate change.
“This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something done, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,’” Haley said.
Minutes later, Haley fired back at former Vice President Mike Pence for touting that he would sign a 15-week abortion ban into law at the federal level — pointing out that there aren’t enough votes in the Senate to pass such a measure.
“No Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban all those state laws,” Haley said. “Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”
Haley has been eager to distinguish herself as the only prominent female candidate in a field full of men. GOP voters, however, haven’t been quick to embrace Haley just because of her gender.
Haley goes after her competitors on spending
Former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley laid into four of her opponents for raising the national debt during the opening moments of the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Haley took aim at former President Donald Trump for adding a trillion dollars to the national debt, while also taking shots at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former Vice President Mike Pence for voting to raise the debt ceiling during their time in Congress.
Republicans, she said, are responsible for the nation’s ailing economy, not President Joe Biden.
“No one is telling the American people the truth. The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us, our Republicans did this to us too,” Haley said.
Haley pointed to $7.4 billion in earmarks requested by Republicans in the 2024 budget compared to the $2.8 billion asked for by Democrats.
“So you tell me who are the big spenders,” she said. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.
Haley additionally criticized the passage of the $2.2 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill, as well as congressional action that required states to keep more than 90 million people continuously enrolled in Medicaid during the pandemic.
Ramaswamy goes after ‘super PACs’
Ramaswamy repeated his frequent criticism of outside spending with the line, “Do you want a super PAC puppet, or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth?” That could be interpreted as a shot at nearly every other candidate in the race, although most notably DeSantis, who is backed by Never Back Down, a super PAC that has raised more than $100 million and is frequently alongside DeSantis on the campaign trail.
Of course, there is a super PAC supporting Ramaswamy, too. American Exceptionalism PAC has spent more than $700,000 to support him so far, according to data from AdImpact, with new ads set to run tomorrow in Iowa.
Pence calls Ramaswamy a ‘rookie’
Former Vice President Mike Pence laid into fellow presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, saying that “we don’t need to bring in a rookie” like Ramaswamy as the Republican nominee.
Pence had been asked by Fox moderator Bret Baier what he would do to tackle the nation’s rising debt. Pence said he was the “best prepared” candidate on the stage and touted his record as governor of Indiana, in Congress and as vice president and pledged to “restore fiscal responsibility” while floating potential Medicare and Social Security cuts.
“I’ve got news for you, Vivek. I’ve been in the hallway and West Wing,” Pence said.
Ramaswamy then said he wasn’t sure he “exactly understood” Pence’s comment.
“Let me explain it to you, Vivek,” Pence responded. “I’ll go slower this time.”
“Now is not the time for on-the job training,” Pence said. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”
Ramaswamy responded, calling himself a “patriot who speaks the truth” instead of a “Super PAC puppet” and said he wouldn’t bring “incremental reform,” but rather a “revolution.”
The clash came as Ramaswamy has risen in polls and overtaken Pence.
Christie compared Ramaswamy to ChatGPT
Chris Christie had a zinger ready to launch at Vivek Ramaswamy that the former New Jersey governor let fly as Ramaswamy was calling climate change a hoax and criticizing what he called Washington’s anti-carbon agenda.
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said to Fox News moderator Bret Baier. “And the last person in one of these debates, Bret, who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama,” Christie said, referring to Ramaswamy’s self-introduction that he made earlier in the debate.
Ramaswamy’s rapid rise in the polls has been attributed to his serial appearances on broadcast TV and podcasts in which he has come across as an articulate and convincing speaker, although the wealthy entrepreneur has also been accused of flip-flopping on numerous issues.
“And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie said, comparing Ramaswamy to Obama.
“Give me a hug just like you did to Obama, and you’ll elect me just like you did to Obama,” Ramaswamy fired back.
‘Climate change is a hoax’
GOP candidates during the first Republican debate argued over climate change, with Vivek Ramaswamy calling it a hoax.
“I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this,” Ramaswamy said, though he caught some shade. “Climate change is a hoax…The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”
Ramaswamy’s remarks were booed by the crowd and slammed by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who compared the entrepreneur to ChatGPT and former President Barack Obama.
The question started when Fox moderator Martha MacCallum asked: “Do you believe in human behavior causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.”
Before anyone could make a move, Ron DeSantis took the floor.
“We are not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate,” DeSantis said, before launching into a response bashing Biden and the media.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, meanwhile, called for China and India to cut emissions.
“First of all, we do care about clean air, clean water. We want to see that taken care of, but there is a right way to do it. The right way is first of all, yes, is climate change real? Yes, it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
Candidates clash over national abortion ban
DeSantis touted signing a six-week abortion ban in Florida — which has yet to take effect, pending a court review — but dodged a direct question on whether he would sign a similar federal ban into law, saying only that he would.
“I will stand on the side of life,” he responded. “I understand Wisconsin will do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire will do it different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”
Haley also ducked a direct answer on the question, as she has in the past, arguing that a national ban isn’t likely to garner the needed 60 Senate votes to pass. Instead, she called for narrower legislation.
“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 abortions shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we agree that contraception should be available? 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?”
Other candidates jumped in with more direct responses.
Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) voiced support for national ban, arguing that failing to do so would allow blue states to continue providing abortions.
“We can’t leave it to Illinois. We can’t leave it to Minnesota,” Scott said.
Pence also hit Haley for her answer, calling it “the opposite of leadership.”
Burgum, who signed a 6-week ban in North Dakota, was the sole candidate to come out swinging against a federal ban, saying it would violate the principles of federalism in the Constitution.
It’s notable, as the candidates struggle with how far right they want to go on abortion, that the field in general is to the right of voters in New Hampshire, the first primary state, on the issue. Six in 10 New Hampshire voters opposed overturning Roe v. Wade. More than 70 percent identify as “pro-choice.” The state allows abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, with some exceptions afterward. Candidates tend to downplay or not mention their abortion stances when campaigning in the state. DeSantis, for instance, doesn’t talk about the six-week ban he said in the debate he was “proud” to sign.
Candidates say they would support Trump — even if he is convicted
Asked if they would support Trump as the party’s nominee even if he was convicted of a crime, 6 of 8 candidates raised their hands — with very degrees of enthusiasm — with only Christie and Hutchinson indicating they would not support the former president again.
Christie, shaking his fist slightly, spoke up first after the question, side-stepping the issue of prosecutors that many Republicans have criticized as politicized, but calling attention to Trump’s underlying behavior.
“Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct,” the former New Jersey governor said, though his comments were met with displeasure by some in the audience as well as on the stage.
“Booing is allowed, but it does not change the truth,” Christie added.
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