Nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates vying to be the leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump said they would support the former president if he is the party’s nominee even if he is convicted in a court of law as they gathered on stage for the first time.
The question came nearly an hour into Wednesday night’s first primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel in Milwaukee and a day before Trump, who declined to participate, is set to surrender in Georgia on charges of trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election.
Here’s what else happened during the first GOP Debate:
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Debate shows deep divides within Republican Party
The first Republican presidential debate illustrated the deep divisions within the GOP, with the candidates on stage arguing over issues including U.S. support for Ukraine, when and how to best restrict abortion nationwide, and support for the party’s eventual 2024 nominee.
Most of the candidates vowed to support Ukraine in its war with Russia, but the notable exception was Vivek Ramaswamy. He suggested that supporting that country when the U.S. hasn’t fixed its own problems was “disastrous.” That drew rebukes from many of his rivals, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who told the 38-year-old technology entrepreneur, “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
There was disagreement on abortion, with Haley calling for “consensus” and Pence saying that was the “opposite of leadership.” The candidates largely agreed that Pence was right to protect the results of the 2020 election against Donald Trump’s pressure campaign.
Trump skipped Wednesday night’s event and was not a major focus of what was said. But both Christie and Hutchison were booed for saying they wouldn’t support him as their party’s nominee, though Christie faltered in his answer. Despite so much consensus on Trump, however, Pence drew applause when he said the former president wasn’t above the law.
Desantis, the highest-polling candidate on stage, takes back seat
After recent campaign stumbles, Ron DeSantis was expected to have to defend himself and project likeability on the debate stage — but he had done relatively little of either as the two-hour broadcast neared its end.
The Florida governor instead seemed to take a back seat to more vocal candidates, speaking significantly less than biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, his closest GOP competitor besides former President Donald Trump in recent polls.
Ramaswamy garnered both massive applause and barbs from competitors on stage on topics from foreign policy to climate change.
In the second half of the night, DeSantis was given the first chance to answer a question about education, one of the topics he campaigns on most passionately.
He responded with ease, citing Florida legislation to remove mentions of gender identity so-called critical race theory in the classroom.
But Ramaswamy was quick on his tail. The novice candidate pleased the crowd with calls to “shut down the head of the snake, the Department of Education,” end teachers unions, and require civics tests to graduate high school.
Christie asked about UFOs at Republican debate
Is the truth really out there?
There was a UFO question posed near the end of the GOP debate. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked if he would “level” with the American people about what was known about what was “out there.”
Christie took mock offense, saying he’d been asked that because he was from New Jersey and that his home state is “different but not that different.”
He didn’t otherwise take the bait, saying those on stage had better things to talk about.
Ramaswamy only candidate to oppose more funding to Ukraine
When asked by the moderators who would not support more funding to Ukraine, the only candidate to raise their hand was Vivek Ramaswamy.
“I think this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should be using those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States,” Ramaswamy said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Ramaswamy also took a swipe at his fellow Republicans, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and and former Vice President Mike Pence, who have met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv to their Pope Zelenskyy without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago or Kensington,” Ramaswamy said. “I think we have to put the interests of Americans first, secure our own border instead of somebody else’s.”
This prompted a rebuke from Pence: “Anybody that thinks that we can’t solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth.”
Ramaswamy takes literal center stage at debate
At the center of the stage, and at the center of the hottest exchanges in the first part of the debate, was a 38-year-old 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.
Candidates agree Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6
The Republican presidential candidates at Wednesday’s debate largely said they agreed with former Vice President Mike Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pence eschewed then-President Donald Trump’s demands to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election, a decision that led some in a mob of Trump supporters to chant for his hanging that day.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said, “Absolutely.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t immediately answer the question, saying, “We’ve got to look forward.” Under pressure from both Pence and the moderators, DeSantis ultimately said, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” prompting Pence to reply, “I’m relieved.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaped to Pence’s defense, saying the then-vice president “deserves not grudging credit, he deserves our thanks as Americans.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley agreed that Pence “did the right thing” and deserved credit, as did North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Trump leans into 2020 election lies in conspiracy-dabbled interview
Donald Trump skipped the Republican presidential debate to instead lean into his bogus claims about the 2020 election in a conspiracy-dabbled interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The former president praised the crowd he spoke to on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, before his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, saying, “There was love in that crowd. There was love and unity.”
Trump also did not dismiss a suggestion from Carlson about whether his political opponents might choose violence or threaten his life.
“They are savage animals. They are people that are sick. Really sick,” Trump said.
He also called the four criminal cases he faces “nonsense.”
Trump attacked President Joe Biden and suggested he was physically unfit for office. He also derided his rivals for the GOP nomination and said he skipped the debate because he didn’t want to be “harassed” by people he said “shouldn’t even be running for president.”
“I’m going to have all these people screaming at me, shouting questions at me, all of which I love answering, I love doing, but it doesn’t make sense to do them so I’ve taken a pass.”
Six of eight candidates say they’d fully support Trump as nominee
The top Republicans vying to be the leading alternative to Donald Trump are finally getting a chance to weigh in on his four indictments — sort of.
Nearly an hour into the GOP debate, Fox News Channel showed a live image of Atlanta’s Fulton County jail, where the former president is set to surrender on charges on Thursday, drawing boos from the audience. The moderators said they’d spend a “brief moment about the elephant not in the room” and ask about the cases against Trump.
Those on stage were then asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he wins the GOP presidential nomination. Six of the candidates raised their hands, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie half-raised his hand and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson kept his hand down.
The candidates on stage were required to sign a pledge vowing to support the eventual nominee before joining Wednesday’s debate.
Haley calls for abortion ‘consensus’; Pence says that’s not leadership
All of the Republican candidates on Wednesday night’s debate stage say they oppose abortion, but their differences on where lines should be drawn became evident on stage.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — the only woman in the GOP race — says there’s a need for “consensus” over abortion, noting that she feels it unlikely that a federal ban would pass until there are 60 senators who would support it. Haley, who often cities her own fertility struggles and the fact that her husband is adopted, says America needs to “humanize the issue and stop demonizing” it.
Former Vice President Mike Pence challenged her position, saying that “consensus is the opposite of leadership” on the issue.
Pence is the only major candidate who has said he supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant. In an interview with The Associated Press, Pence went even further, saying abortion should be banned even when a pregnancy isn’t viable
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a six-week abortion ban into law, said “you’ve got to do what you think is right” when asked what he felt about potential criticism that such a narrow restriction could possibly harm GOP candidates in a general election.
Christie accuses Ramaswamy of sounding like a chatbot
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lashed out at biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy during a discussion on climate change, accusing the outsider candidate of sounding like an artificial intelligence chatbot after Ramaswamy called efforts against carbon energy “a wet blanket on our economy.”
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said. “The last person at one of these debates 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. And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”
“Give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” Ramaswamy responded, a nod to the then-president placing his hand on Christie’s shoulder during a visit after Superstorm Sandy. “And you’ll help elect me just like you did to Obama too.”
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley jumped in after the feisty exchange, distinguishing herself as the only woman onstage.
“I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,’” she said, acknowledging that climate change is real and arguing that to address it, the U.S. needs to pressure China and India to lower their emissions.
Haley goes after fellow Republicans on federal spending
Nikki Haley smoothly took the first swipe of the night on a question about excessive federal spending and nodded to her accounting degree from Clemson.
The former South Carolina governor and former United Nations ambassador didn’t blink in turning to her rivals with congressional experience to blame them – not Joe Biden – for the nation’s debt.
“You have Ron DeSantis. You’ve got Tim Scott. You’ve got Mike Pence. They all voted to raise the debt. And Donald Trump added 8 trillion to our debt,” Haley said.
Scott is a South Carolina senator, DeSantis a former Florida representative and Pence a former congressman from Indiana.
Haley said, “So, you tell me. Who are the big spenders? I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.”
DeSantis borrows Trump’s famous line
It was Donald Trump’s famous line on “The Apprentice,” but at the debate, “You’re fired!” was taken over by one of his top GOP challengers.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that “a major reason” for America’s current struggles is “because how this federal government handled COVID-19 by locking down this economy.”
DeSantis, who has talked often on the campaign trail about how he “kept Florida open” during the pandemic, said at the debate that, “As your president, I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down.”
Of Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert during the pandemic, DeSantis said, “You don’t take somebody like Fauci and coddle him. You bring Fauci and you sit him down and you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired.’”
The GOP front-runner is little mentioned early in debate
Donald Trump may have a dominating early lead in the Republican presidential primary, but he was barely mentioned during the GOP debate’s opening minutes.
The former president is skipping the debate, and his name was little spoken in its opening 25 minutes.
And that’s despite former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has promised to build his presidential run around stopping Trump, giving a lengthy answer defending his own record in his home state.
Former Vice President Mike Pence defended the record of the “Trump-Pence administration” and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took a page from Trump’s political playbook by pledging to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, drawing applause from the crowd in Milwaukee.
But most of the early debate focused on the candidates on stage ripping President Joe Biden and his administration’s economic policies.
Ramaswamy is a top early target on stage in Trump’s absence
Vivek Ramaswamy emerged as a popular target early in the debate, drawing cheers from the audience when he introduced himself.
“Let me just address a question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight,” the biotech entrepreneur said. “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?”
Former Vice President Mike Pence called him a “rookie,” saying people should not elect people without experience.
Christie accused Ramaswamy of trying to imitate Barack Obama and said the country had already tried that.
“The last person in one of these debates 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, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie said
Economics of ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’
To start off the debate, candidates were asked to lay out their economic arguments by way of explaining why a viral song decrying high taxes and the wealth of the elite had caught fire.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used his response to the popularity of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” to blame President Joe Biden for what he characterized as “American decline.” DeSantis also took an opportunity to go after Biden’s son Hunter, saying he made “hundreds of thousands of dollars on lousy paintings” while Americans “are working hard, and you can’t afford groceries a car or a new home.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he agreed “predominantly” with DeSantis’ response but argued he can be a consensus builder since he was “elected as a conservative Republican in a blue state.”
Two most prominent anti-Trump candidates get booed
Former President Donald Trump isn’t on the debate stage, but the audience seems firmly in his corner.
The crowd booed former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson as they were introduced at Wednesday night’s debate on Fox News. The two are among the most prominent anti-Trump candidates in the GOP field.
Trump skipped the event for an interview with Tucker Carlson instead. He told Carlson: “Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?”
Candidates take podium as leadoff GOP debate begins
The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle has begun.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, anti-woke activist Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum took the stage Wednesday night for the Fox News event.
Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum are moderating.
Former President Donald Trump appeared poised to post on his Truth Social platform during the debate. He skipped the debate and instead conducted a prerecorded interview with Tucker Carlson that was airing at the same time.
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