Can you imagine just how bad things are in this country when a major political debate is between felons and stupid hillbillies? Anyway, the debate, if you could call it that, showed nothing, offered nothing, and gave nothing. If you could call getting something from it, you could say that the GOP is a careless organization filled with puppets who sold their souls long ago to their billionaire donors who tell them what to say no matter how stupid or silly it sounds. Is climate change a human caused issue? Nope, never heard of that or even climate change. Raise your hand if you support this or don’t support that. What the ever-loving hell is this? A KinderCare school or something, where the teacher says raise your hands if you think this or think that? It just continued on like that for the entire time, nothing was gained other than confirming that none of these people should ever be anywhere near the levers of power.
Mike Pence and Chris Christie knocked Vivek Ramaswamy as a know-it-all novice.
Nikki Haley leaned into being the only woman on stage.
And no matter whether former President Donald Trump is convicted of a crime, he still has the support of most of his rivals.
The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election did not lack for fireworks, even with the absence of its frontrunner Trump.
Here’s a look at the must-see moments of the two-hour showdown:
Pence won’t vow to pardon Trump
The former vice president refused to vow to pardon Trump if elected — though he didn’t close the door to that possibility, either, after being goaded onstage by Vivek Ramaswamy.
“Join me in making a commitment that on day one you would pardon Donald Trump,” Ramaswamy challenged Pence.
“I don’t know why you assume Donald Trump will be convicted of these crimes,” Pence replied. “That is the difference between you and me. I have given pardons when I was governor of the state of Indiana. It usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that’s been convicted.”
Trump is currently facing dozens of charges across four indictments. In one case, a federal indictment against Trump related to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Pence could end up serving as a key witness against the former president.
“If I am president of the United States, we’ll give fair consideration to any pardon requests,” Pence said onstage Wednesday night.
Candidates say they would support Trump — even if he’s convicted
Asked if they would support Trump as the party’s nominee even if he was convicted of a crime, 6 of 8 candidates raised their hands — with varying degrees of enthusiasm — with only Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson indicating they would not support the former president again.
Christie, shaking his fist slightly, spoke up first after the question, side-stepping the issue of prosecutors that many Republicans have criticized as politicized, but calling attention to Trump’s underlying behavior.
“Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct,” the former New Jersey governor said, though his comments were met with displeasure by some in the audience as well as on the stage.
“Booing is allowed, but it does not change the truth,” Christie added.
Attacks on Ramaswamy dominated the first hour
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have had the No. 1 spot on the debate stage. But it’s the man in the No. 2 spot, Ramaswamy, who took the most heat over the first hour of the two-hour melee in Milwaukee.
Pence and Christie piled on Ramaswamy, who entered the debate on the rise while DeSantis has been sliding in polls. They attacked him on his age and his political inexperience — Pence called Ramaswamy a “rookie,” Christie derided him as an “amateur” — as they look to stop his climb.
And the former federal prosecutor took Ramaswamy, who’s repeatedly pledged to pardon Trump if elected president, to task for defending Trump against the multiple criminal investigations he’s facing.
“You’ve never done anything to try to advance the interests of this government except to put yourself forward as a candidate tonight,” Christie said. “I did it as U.S. attorney, I did it as governor. And I am not going to bow to anyone.”
It all made DeSantis somewhat of an afterthought over the first hour, limiting his screen time.
Pence’s rivals defended him on Jan. 6: ‘Mike did his duty’
GOP presidential candidates were faced with a key question Wednesday night: Did Pence do the right thing on Jan. 6?
“Absolutely,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said, who was the first candidate to answer the question.
Christie, Haley and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum agreed with Scott, though DeSantis danced around the question.
Pence has defended his actions on Jan. 6 and has said Trump “had no right to overturn the election” on Jan. 6.
Pence refused Trump’s pressure to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory when presiding over the certification of the election results.
“I made it clear and hoped that the issues surrounding the 2020 election and the controversies around Jan. 6 would not come to this, come to criminal proceedings,” Pence said. “The American people deserve to know that the president asked me in his request that I reject or return votes. He asked me to put him over the Constitution and I chose the Constitution.”
Candidates clash over a national abortion ban
DeSantis touted signing a 6-week abortion ban in Florida — which has yet to take effect, pending a court review — but dodged a direct question on whether he would sign a similar federal ban into law, saying only that he would.
“I will stand on the side of life,” he responded. “I understand Wisconsin will do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire will do it different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”
Haley also ducked a direct answer on the question, as she has in the past, arguing that a national ban isn’t likely to garner the needed 60 Senate votes to pass. Instead, she called for narrower legislation.
“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortions shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we agree that contraception should be available? Can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”
Other candidates jumped in with more direct responses.
Pence and Scott voiced support for a national ban, arguing that failing to do so would allow blue states to continue providing abortions.
“We can’t leave it to Illinois. We can’t leave it to Minnesota,” Scott said.
Burgum, who signed a 6-week ban in North Dakota, was the sole candidate to come out swinging against a federal ban, saying it would violate the principles of federalism in the Constitution.
It’s notable, as the candidates struggle with how far right they want to go on abortion, that the field in general is to the right of voters in New Hampshire, the first primary state, on the issue. Six in 10 New Hampshire voters opposed overturning Roe v. Wade. More than 70 percent identify as “pro-choice.” The state allows abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, with some exceptions afterward. Candidates tend to downplay or not mention their abortion stances when campaigning in the state. DeSantis, for instance, doesn’t talk about the 6-week ban he said in the debate he was “proud” to sign.
Haley touts the effectiveness of being a woman
Haley was the only woman on the Milwaukee debate stage Wednesday night.
And, within the first half hour of the program, she made sure people knew that — stepping into a spat between Christie and Ramaswamy.
Haley offered up a riff on a Margaret Thatcher quote, “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’”
Minutes later, Haley fired back at Pence for saying that he would sign a 15-week abortion ban into law at the federal level — pointing out that there aren’t enough votes in the Senate to pass such a measure.
“No Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban all those state laws,” Haley said. “Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”
Haley has been eager to distinguish herself as the only prominent female candidate in a field full of men. GOP voters, however, haven’t been quick to embrace Haley just because of her gender.
‘Climate change is a hoax’
GOP candidates during the first Republican debate argued over climate change, with Ramaswamy calling it a hoax.
“I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this,” Ramaswamy said, though he caught some shade. “Climate change is a hoax…The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”
Ramaswamy’s remarks were booed by the crowd and slammed by Christie, who compared the entrepreneur to ChatGPT and former President Barack Obama.
The question started when Fox moderator Martha MacCallum asked: “Do you believe in human behavior causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.”
Before anyone could make a move, DeSantis took the floor.
“We are not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate,” DeSantis said, before launching into a response bashing Biden and the media.
“First of all, we do care about clean air, clean water. We want to see that taken care of, but there is a right way to do it. The right way is first of all, yes, is climate change real? Yes, it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
Candidates contrast over the war in Ukraine
The GOP divide on Ukraine was on full display during the debate, with Ramaswamy and DeSantis saying they would cut off funding to Kyiv while others defended U.S. aid to the embattled nation.
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelenskyy, without doing the same for the people in Maui or the south side of Chicago,” he said, referring to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.
DeSantis was more hedging, saying that he would stop aid to Ukraine unless European governments stepped up to “pull their weight.”
Those calls to stop Ukraine funding earned applause in the room, but were not shared by all candidates. Haley, a former U.N. ambassador under Trump, accused Ramaswamy of wanting to “hand Ukraine to Russia” and “let China eat Taiwan.”
“You are choosing a murderer” over an ally of the U.S., Haley said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I wish you success on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon,” Ramaswamy retorted, naming two large U.S. weapons manufacturers.
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley shot back, earning raucous applause in the arena.
Haley goes after her competitors on spending
Haley laid into four of her opponents for raising the national debt during the opening moments of the debate.
The one-time tea party star took aim at Trump for adding $8 trillion to the national debt, while also taking shots at DeSantis, Scott and Pence for voting to raise the debt ceiling during their time in Congress.
“No one is telling the American people the truth. The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us, our Republicans did this to us too,” Haley said.
She pointed to $7.4 billion in earmarks requested by Republicans in the 2024 budget compared to the $2.8 billion asked for by Democrats.
“So you tell me who are the big spenders,” she said. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.
Haley additionally criticized the passage of the $2.2 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill, as well as congressional action that required states to keep more than 90 million people continuously enrolled in Medicaid during the pandemic.