At crowded GOP debate, candidates spar over Trump, abortion, conservative credentials

GOP Debate 2023 (From L) Former Arkansas governor of Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum arrive onstage for the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23, 2023. | Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday night sparred in the first Republican debate over their respective qualifications for president, abortion, and the legacy of Donald Trump, firing opening shots in the battle for their party’s nomination next year.

The debate, the first of two scheduled by the Republican National Committee, was held at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Present were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

The candidates at the outset rushed to boost their own political experience and conservative bona fides, touting their voting histories in Congress and their respective governorships in several U.S. states.

“I was a House conservative leader before it was cool,” Pence said at one point. “I balanced budgets and cut taxes when I was governor [of Indiana].” 

Addressing Ramaswamy — the only candidate in the field without political experience — Pence declared: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training.” 

Ramaswamy suggested his fellow Republicans were politically compromised. “Do you want a super PAC puppet?” he said of the more experienced candidates. “Or a patriot who speaks the truth?” 

DeSantis, meanwhile, boasted of his management of Florida during the COVID-19 crisis, vowing that as president he would not allow any more national lockdowns.

Notably absent from the stage was top contender and former President Donald Trump, who last week announced he would “not be doing the debates” due to what he said were “legendary” polling numbers.

“The public knows who I am and what a successful presidency I had,” Trump said via social media. 

National polls have shown Trump as the far-and-away favorite among Republican primary voters, with DeSantis a distant second and the rest of the contenders mostly polling in single digits. 

Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy (left) and former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley gesture as they speak during the first Republican presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy (left) and former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley gesture as they speak during the first Republican presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Candidates address abortion, crime

Front and center at the debate on Wednesday was the issue of abortion. The event marked the first presidential debate of any kind since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June of last year. 

Haley called herself “unapologetically pro-life” and praised the Supreme Court for putting the abortion debate “in the hands of the people.” 

Yet she warned that Republicans lack the necessary votes to pass major abortion bans at the congressional level. “Let’s find consensus,” she said of the issue, citing broad support for adoption and bans on late-term abortion.

Asked about his having signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, DeSantis countered that after doing so he still won reelection in a “landslide” victory. 

“You got to do what you think is right,” DeSantis said. “I believe in a culture of life. I was proud to sign the heartbeat bill.” 

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Asked if he would sign a six-week ban at the federal level, DeSantis responded: “I’m going to stay on the side of life. I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”

Pence, meanwhile, professed his Christian faith and said after he “gave [his] life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and read Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”), he went on to be a “champion for life in Congress.”

“It’s a moral issue,” said Pence, who supports a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks. “Can’t we have a minimum standard in every state in the nation: When a baby is capable of feeling pain, an abortion cannot be allowed?”

Scott echoed the call for a national abortion standard. “We can’t let [blue states] have abortion on demand up to birth,” he said. “It is immoral, unethical, and wrong."

Burgum, in contrast, claimed abortion should not be decided at the federal level. “[W]e should not have a federal abortion ban,” he said, citing the 10th Amendment, which acknowledges that most powers in the U.S. are reserved to the states. “I say we should follow the Constitution.” 

Asked about the crime plaguing American cities, Ramaswamy said the solution is “more cops in the streets, who are on the streets, able to do their jobs.” 

Ramaswamy also cited mental health as a driving factor in that crisis, calling it a “deeper issue” and arguing that “faith-based” efforts can play a role in addressing it. “People are so hungry for purpose and meaning,” he said. 

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DeSantis said “radical left-wing district attorneys” funded by billionaire George Soros have been looking the other way on crime throughout the U.S.

“We had two of these district attorneys in Florida elected with Soros funding who said they wouldn’t do their job,” DeSantis said. “I removed them from their posts.”

Jan. 6, 2021, controversy

The candidates debated at length the significance of the Jan. 6, 2021, Washington, D.C., riot in which supporters of outgoing President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol. They were also asked about Trump’s repeated denials of the legitimacy of the 2020 election outcome. 

“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said of those denials, calling it “beneath the office of the president of the United States.” 

DeSantis at one point asked with incredulity: “Is this what we’re going to be focusing on?”

“This election is not about Jan. 6, 2021,” he said. “It’s about Jan. 20, 2025. We’ve got to focus on your future. We’ve got to focus on reversing the decline of our country.”

“No one’s above the law,” Pence said of his former running mate. “President Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence that everyone is entitled to.” 

Claiming that Trump on Jan. 6 had asked Pence to “put him over the Constitution,” Pence said: “I chose the Constitution.”

The candidates further debated topics including Israel, China, border policy, and funding of the Ukraine-Russia war. They were also asked about the ongoing steep declines in student performance that many states have reported over the last few years.

“The decline in education is one of the major reasons our country is in decline,” DeSantis said. He cited school lockdowns as a major driver of the crisis, noting Florida’s open-school policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. He further said his state had eliminated divisive topics like critical race theory from schools. 

“We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country,” he said.

“We have a crisis of achievement,” Ramaswamy said, calling for the U.S. Department of Education to be shut down. He claimed the topic of school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time” and that parents should be allowed to choose where they send kids to school. 

Though he bowed out of Wednesday’s debate, Trump captured headlines and media attention on Wednesday evening by releasing a prerecorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson just before the debate aired.

That interview had tallied roughly 80 million views before the end of the GOP debate.

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