Sparks Fly at the First GOP Debate as Candidates Clash on Abortion, Trump, and Ukraine

Republicans train their fire on Joe Biden. The GOP candidates clearly despise Vivek Ramaswamy. Donald Trump goes largely unmentioned. But does any of this matter when the former president leads the field by more than 30 points? Here’s what you need to know about the first GOP debate:


Republicans train their fire on Joe Biden. The GOP candidates clearly despise Vivek Ramaswamy. Donald Trump goes largely unmentioned. But does any of this matter when the former president leads the field by more than 30 points? Here’s what you need to know about the first GOP debate:

  • Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha McCallum kept the debate focused on the issues and only briefly touched on the legal woes of former president Trump, the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
  • Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley turned in a strong performance and advanced her ideas to audience applause in several clashes with her rivals. Haley argued Republicans need to “stop demonizing” when talking about abortion and said Republicans should be realistic about passing national abortion legislation given the makeup of the Senate.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence called her stance “the opposite of leadership,” but Haley called his uncompromising pro-life positions unrealistic for making women “feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”
  • The Republican candidates skirmished on issues ranging from the Maui wildfire to American support for Ukraine. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy were the only candidates who supported cutting off American funding for Ukraine’s battle against Russian invaders.
  • Ramaswamy referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the “pope” of “professional politicians,” but Haley’s denunciation of what she called Ramaswamy’s plan to “hand Ukraine to Russia” and “let China eat Taiwan” was met with thunderous applause by the live audience.
  • Haley lambasted Ramaswamy for his weakness towards Russia. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” she said. The best Ramaswamy could muster against her was a demagogic attack insinuating Haley, the former United Nations ambassador under Trump, holds her positions because she’s beholden to defense contractors while vowing to give Putin whatever he wants. “You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” Haley retorted.
  • The former UN ambassador and governor of South Carolina criticized Trump, DeSantis, Pence, and Sen. Tim Scott for voting to raise the debt ceiling and spending irresponsibly while in power. She argued Republicans like them bear some responsibility for the nation’s economic woes and said their profligacy means America needs “an accountant in the White House” – her.
  • The candidates largely agreed that Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6. Haley, Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all defended Pence, while DeSantis tried to dodge the question before halfheartedly saying “Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him.”
  • Burgum appeared unfazed by a basketball injury from the night before the debate that ruptured his Achilles tendon. The North Dakota governor stood for the entire debate despite his injury and frequently tried to focus the discussion on countering China and unleashing American energy.
  • The disdain the Republican candidates felt for Ramaswamy was palpable. Besides his clash with Haley over foreign policy, Pence called the millennial businessman a “rookie.” Christie said the entrepreneur “sounds like ChatGPT” and called him “the same type of amateur” as former President Barack Obama.
  • The crowd attending the first debate in Milwaukee did not appear to like Ramaswamy either. Ramaswamy called climate change a “hoax,” a charge that was met with the loudest boos of the night – even more boos than Christie earned for criticizing Trump by name. Haley and DeSantis were the only candidates who substantially answered the climate change question. Haley called on China and India to cut their emissions while DeSantis slammed Biden’s policies and media coverage for distorting the public’s perception of the issue.
  • The candidates largely avoided the subject of Donald Trump – “the elephant not in the room” – unless directly asked by the moderators.
  • Pence notably refused to commit to pardoning Trump, although he defended the presumption of innocence he said Trump is owed under the law and contrasted that unfavorably with Ramaswamy’s pledge to pardon Trump. Pence said Ramaswamy’s pledge carries the underlying assumption that Trump will be convicted at one or more of his trials.
  • Trump’s planned counterprogramming – an interview with ousted Fox News host Tucker Carlson – streamed on X during the debate. The interview drew at least 74 million views, but views on X can include anyone who watched the interview for even a few seconds and it’s unclear if people who watch the video more than once or on different devices are counted as multiple views.
  • The Trump-Tucker interview covered pressing topics like how Jeffrey Epstein died, deregulating showerheads, and the sale of the Panama Canal. At one point, Trump mocked Vice President Kamala Harris for speaking “in rhyme.” He continued, “It’s weird… the way she talks. ‘The bus will go here and then the bus will go there! Because that’s what buses do. It’s weird. The whole thing is weird.”


reporting from the left side of the aisle


  • Axios highlighted the first debate question, which asked the GOP candidates to comment on the appeal of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the country song that became a sleeper hit on the charts. DeSantis said the song is striking a nerve with Americans because they can feel “our country is in decline. This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice!”
  • CNN broke down the speaking times for each of the eight GOP candidates. Pence spoke the most at 12 minutes 26 seconds. Ramaswamy, Christie, and DeSantis each spoke for between 10 to 12 minutes, while Haley, Scott, Burgum, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson spoke for between 7 and a half and 8 and a half minutes.
  • The Washington Post wrote “it was Trump’s absence from and the others’ presence on the debate stage Wednesday night in Milwaukee that highlighted the chasm in support that exists between the front-runner and his would-be rivals scrambling to challenge for the nomination. But instead of taking advantage of a stage without Trump, the eight candidates onstage quickly descended into disagreement, insults and name-calling that left one another as scathed as the former president. It took nearly an hour for the Fox News debate to turn to Trump. But when the issue of his multiple indictments, including two for trying to subvert the 2020 election, came to the fore, it quickly became clear why he holds sway with so many in the party and why he is still such a divisive force in the country at large.”



  • National Review’s Noah Rothman predicted the debate could lead to a DeSantis comeback. “All the ingredients for a political resurrection are already present,” Rothman wrote. “But to survey the coverage of the race he has run so far is to be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump’s most viable challenger for the nomination is already out of the game. DeSantis can parlay those misplaced assumptions into a gripping story of a man who beat the odds and turned the tables on all his detractors. And the only thing Americans like more than an underdog is a good comeback.”
  • Reason’s Matt Welch argued Ramaswamy’s “popular incoherence” is a “strategic” response to the “market” of Republican primary voters who gravitate towards candidates “who point accusatory and indiscriminate fingers. And as long as voters keep flocking to people who show zero compunction about lying, they will continue getting lied to.” Welch continued, “The same dynamics also come into play when outsider populists engage in another activity previously thought to be politically injurious: flip-flopping… Where some might see philosophical inconsistency, Ramaswamy insists he’s just following the facts like a policy entrepreneur, unbeholden to any ideology or donor base.”
  • The New York Post noted two candidates – Christie and Hutchinson – refused to back Trump if he wins the nomination when moderators asked the candidates to demonstrate their thoughts with a show of hands. “Here is the bottom line. Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie told the audience to a chorus of boos. “Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”


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© Dominic Moore, 2023