Vivek Ramaswamy takes center stage and other key moments from the first Republican debate (2023)

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dominated the fight for the Republican presidential nomination for much of the year. Neither dominated the debate stage on Wednesday night. Trump, of course, decided to jumpthe opening presidential primary debate of the Republican Partygiven its overwhelming lead in the polls. DeSantis appeared but was overshadowed for much of the night by political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy.

And there was no shortage of aggressive performances from the others on stage either. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were aggressive when given the opportunity.

It took more than an hour for moderators to ask about Trump's legal battles, a discussion that was preempted with a video of the Atlanta prison where he will surrender on charges on Thursday.

The former president scheduled a counterprogramming with an interviewaired on X, formerly known as Twitter, as its staff suggested that the debate was essentially a hearing to see who is best positioned to serve as his running mate.

Here are our takeaways from an action-packed night:

Vivek draws attention

Taking center stage, and at the center of the debate's most heated discussions, was a 38-year-old man no one expected to have been there a few months ago - a novice candidate and tech entrepreneur namedVivek Ramaswamy.

Though trailing far behind Trump, Ramaswamy has surged in recent polls, leading to his position alongside DeSantis at center stage. And he quickly showed why when he presented his ready-to-video and in-message approach - talking about how his poor parents moved to the US and gave him the chance to found billion-dollar companies.

Then Ramaswamy started throwing elbows. At one point he declared, "I'm the only person on stage who wasn't bought and paid for." He criticized his rivals as “PAC super puppets” who used “ready-made slogans” to attack him.

He seemed to be betting that primary voters would prefer something memorable said to something done. His rivals had none of this.

“Now is not the time for hands-on training,” Pence said. "We don't need to bring in a rookie."

Christie interrupted during one of Ramaswamy's most forceful attacks. "I've had enough of one guy who stands out here and looks like ChatGPT," Christie said, adding that Ramaswamy's opening line about being a skinny guy with a hard-to-pronounce name reminded him of former President Barack Obama - not a compliment. on a republican stage. Ramaswamy responded by asking Christie for a "hug", referring to when Obama visited Christie State after Hurricane Sandy.

Haley attacked Ramaswamy's argument that the US should not support Ukraine in its defense against invading Russia. “Under your watch, you would make America less safe. You don't have foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley told him, standing directly to his left.

Navigating Trump

It took more than an hour for the candidates to confront the elephant that wasn't in the room.

And when they did, most attendees raised their hands to say they would support Trump even if he was convicted. This is after moderators noted that Trump faces more than 90 criminal charges in separate cases in four jurisdictions.

Ramaswamy promised to pardon Trump if given the opportunity.

“Let's just speak the truth. President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It is a fact,” said Ramaswamy.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney and frequent antagonist of Trump, has aggressively backed away, despite being sometimes drowned out by boos from the public.

Even though people disagreed with the criminal charges, Christie said, "The conduct is beneath the office of the President of the United States."

division on abortion

Republicans onstage did not downplay their strong opposition to abortion rights when given the opportunity. But there was a clear division among the candidates on whether or not to push for a federal abortion ban.

Haley urged her opponents to be honest with voters, saying that a federal law imposing a ban on abortion in all states would likely never pass the narrowly divided Congress. She said the issue should be referred back to the states. She also made a personal appeal.

“We need to stop demonizing this issue,” Haley said. "We are not going to put a woman in prison... if she has an abortion."

On the other side: Pence, an evangelical Christian who has long fought against abortion rights. Both Pence and Scott openly endorsed the nationwide ban on abortions of at least 15 weeks. Pence said Haley's call to find consensus in the states "is the opposite of leadership."

“It is not just a question of the states. It's a moral issue,” he said.

DeSantis, who signed the 6-week abortion ban into Florida law this spring, did not take a position on the federal ban when asked directly. He said he was "proud" to sign his state's abortion ban, which is one of the strictest in the country.

Democrats were probably happy with the discussion. They are already planning to make abortion a central issue in next fall's general election.

DeSantis in the background

The governor of Florida was the leading candidate in the stage polls. However, in the debate, heseemed to slide to the bottomas Ramaswamy took most of the attacks and fought with others on stage.

DeSantis rarely went back and forth, preferring to wait for a moment when he could make a long statement. His critics – especially Trump – have criticized him for being clumsy and rigid, and he has had relatively few opportunities to dispel that impression.

That's not to say DeSantis didn't have strong moments. He responded to a question about liberal billionaire George Soros, a major donor to left-wing causes and a frequent conservative target. DeSantis noted that he was the only person onstage who ousted elected Democratic prosecutors with donations from the Soros network.

“As president, we will go after all these people because they are hurting the quality of life,” DeSantis said.

But even as DeSantis successfully walked the tightrope that defined his campaign — avoiding direct criticism of Trump while also arguing why he would do the job better — he was brought back down to earth.

Candidates were asked whether Pence did the right thing by allowing Congress to certify Joe Biden's victory in the January 6, 2021 presidential election. DeSantis was notably quiet and had to be asked twice by moderators about his response. "I answered this, Mike did his duty, I have nothing against him," DeSantis said, arguing that Democrats wanted the GOP to talk about Jan. 6 while looking to the future, saying the election has to be about 20. January 2025 – the day the next president takes office.

Bret Baier, one of the moderators, retorted: "Donald Trump is leading you by 30 to 40 points in the polls, so it's a problem we have to face."

It's unclear whether DeSantis has changed that dynamic. With about four months to go until voting begins, he may not have many other big opportunities to do so.

The lonely woman on stage

With eight candidates on stage, it was a challenge to stand out. But one stood out immediately – Haley – because she was the only woman there and the only person not wearing a dark suit and red Republican tie.

Haley quoted Margaret Thatcher on how women do things while men talk, stressing the importance of educating girls and arguing that keeping transgender girls out of women's sports was a women's issue. “I will fight for girls all day because strong girls make strong women and strong women make strong leaders,” Haley said.

She also made explicit reference to the general election, although it remains a longshot in primary polls. Some of her most memorable moments came when she argued with Ramaswamy over whether the US should send arms and funding to Ukraine.

Rejecting Trump's False Election Claims

Trump has almost made it a prerequisite for people running for his party's nomination to claim that he won the 2020 election. In 2022, Republican candidates in multiple debates were quick to say they didn't believe in the 2020 election results.

Not on Wednesday. Instead, candidate after candidate praised Pence — who could end up as a witness in one of the federal lawsuits against Trump — for rejecting the former president's calls to suspend Biden's certification as the winner on January 6.

"Mike Pence stood up for the constitution and deserves not grudging credit, but our thanks as Americans," said Christie.

Pence has been repeatedly attacked by Trump and hounded by questioners still angry that he did not try to keep Trump in office. While an Associated Press poll earlier this month found that 7 in 10 Americans think Biden legitimately won the election, 57% of Republicans disagree with that claim. This is a reflection of both the repetition of Trump's electoral lies and the way in which a conservative media world parrots those lies, or at least avoids contradicting them.

Fox News recently paid $787 million to settle a defamation lawsuit against voting machine company Dominion Systems over its spreading lies about the 2020 election, so it was especially impressive to hear such robust statements on the network, including the closing statement of Pence on Trump.

“He asked me to put him above the Constitution,” Pence said of the former president, “and I chose the Constitution.”

An unruly event at times

Things got off to a quiet start as candidates criticized Biden's economic policies. But when attendees turned against each other, Baier and fellow moderator Martha MacCallum sometimes struggled to control the action.

DeSantis helped set the tone early on, rejecting the moderators' request for candidates to raise their hands if they believed human behavior caused climate change.

“We are not schoolchildren,” DeSantis accused. And the moderators abandoned the request.

At one point, Ramaswamy and Haley yelled at each other for over 30 seconds when the conversation turned to foreign policy. Candidates waved their fingers at each other as they shouted. The moderators remained silent.

Baier and MacCallum let the candidates drive the action for much of the night — which is usually what audiences want, though there are critics who would have preferred a more orderly event.

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