NATIONAL NEWS

Vivek Ramaswamy takes center stage, plus other key moments from first Republican debate

Aug 23, 2023, 8:07 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2023, 12:31 pm

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jers...

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Eight Republican presidential candidates met on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday night. Former President Donald Trump didn’t participate, of course. Given his big poll lead, he insisted that his presence would only help his lesser rivals. Instead, Trump sat down for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was streamed online.

By not going, Trump sought to undermine the significance of the debate. But his absence also offered his opponents an opportunity to break out with millions of voters watching. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s chief rival, had perhaps the most to gain — or lose. But several others were also positioned to take advantage of a strong debate showing on the national stage.

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Here are our early takeaways from an action-filled night:

VIVEK GRABS THE SPOTLIGHT

At the center of the stage, and the center of the debate’s hottest exchanges, was a 38-year-old man who no one expected to be there even a few months ago – a novice candidate and technology entrepreneur named Vivek Ramaswamy.

Though he’s well behind Trump, Ramaswamy has crept up in recent polls, leading to his position next to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at center stage. And he quickly showed why when he showcased his ready-for-video, on-message approach, talking about how his poor parents moved to the U.S. and he had the ability to found billion-dollar companies.

Then Ramaswamy tried to show he wasn’t a regular politician and started to throw elbows. At one point he declared “I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for.” He slammed his rivals as “super PAC puppets” who were using “readymade, pre-prepared slogans” to attack him.

He seemed to be betting that primary voters preferred something memorable said to something done. His rivals were having none of it.

“Now is not the time for on the job training,” former Vice President Mike Pence said. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cut in during one of Ramaswamy’s most biting attacks. “I’ve had enough of a guy who stands up here who sounds 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.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley attacked Ramaswamy’s argument that the U.S. shouldn’t support Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion. “Under your watch, you would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley told him, standing directly to his left.

MANAGING TRUMP

It took more than an hour for the candidates to confront the elephant not in the room.

And when they did, most of the participants raised their hands to say they’d support Trump even if he was convicted in a court of law. That’s even after the moderators noted that Trump is facing more than 90 criminal counts in separate cases across four states.

Ramaswamy vowed to pardon Trump if given the chance.

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

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, pushed back aggressively despite being drowned out at times by the audience’s boos.

Even if people disagree with the criminal charges, Christie said, “The conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”

Pence also refused to say he would pardon Trump if he’s ultimately convicted. He said he’d give the possibility “fair consideration.”

DeSantis was far more cautious. He did not address Trump’s indictments or his behavior when given the chance, instead calling for the end of the “weaponization” of the Department of Justice.

Without saying it directly, he suggested that the GOP needs to move past Trump’s baggage.

“Republicans, we need to look forward,” DeSantis said.

DISSENSION ON ABORTION POST-DOBBS

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

Haley, the only woman on stage, called on her opponents to be honest with voters that a federal law that imposes an abortion ban on all states would likely never get through the narrowly divided Congress. She said the issue should be sent back to the states. She also made a personal appeal.

“We need to stop demonizing this issue,” Haley said. “We aren’t going to put a woman in jail … 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 a national ban on abortions at 15 weeks at least.

Pence said that Haley’s call to find consensus on the issue in the states “is the opposite of leadership.”

“It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue,” he said.

As for DeSantis, who signed a 6-week abortion into Florida law just this spring, he didn’t take a position on a 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 nation.

Democrats were likely happy with the discussion. They already plan to make abortion a central issue in next fall’s general election.

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Vivek Ramaswamy takes center stage, plus other key moments from first Republican debate