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The candidates in the first debate of the Republican primary campaign for the 2024 election Alamy Live News
On Your Mark

Climate denial, the elephant not in the room and a Thatcher quote: Key moments from the GOP debate

Eight contenders for the Republican nomination vied for attention in a debate hosted by Fox News.

LAST UPDATE | 24 Aug 2023

FIGHTING AGAINST THE odds – and their current positions in the polls – the Republicans trying to beat Donald Trump to win the party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential race faced each other down for the first time in the inaugural debate of this primary season.

The debate, hosted by Fox News, took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the early hours of this morning Irish time (8pm-10pm local time) without Trump, who declined to participate.

The eight contenders who participated in the debate are:

  • Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida
  • Vivek Ramaswamy, businessman 
  • Mike Pence, former Vice President
  • Nikki Haley, former UN Ambassador
  • Chris Christie, former Governor of New Jersey
  • Tim Scott, Senator
  • Asa Hutchinson, former Governor of Arkansas
  • Doug Burgum, Governor of North Dakota

Pointing to Trump’s wide lead in the polls ahead of the debate, CNN Chief National Correspondent John King described the other candidates’ chances as a “longer than long shot”.

He added, though, that a shake-up could still happen between now and the end of the primaries, particularly in light of Trump’s mounting legal battles. 

milwaukee-wisconsin-usa-23rd-aug-2023-charles-reed-shows-his-support-for-former-president-trump-outside-the-arena-before-republican-candidates-for-president-hold-their-first-debate-at-fiserv-foru Pro-Trump demonstrators outside the Republican debate in Milwaukee Alamy Live News Alamy Live News

The US’ political system is dominated by two parties – Democrats and Republicans. As each four-year presidential cycle draws to a close, the two parties nominate a candidate to represent them in the battle for the Oval Office.

The process of selecting those candidates is known as the ‘primaries’ – a months-long period of debates and campaigning that builds up to state-by-state decisions on who to back for the nomination.

The first heads to butt at the Fox News debate were Ramaswamy and Pence’s, who are polar opposites in terms of their experience – one with no political background, the other a White House veteran.

Ramaswamy sought to lean into his status as a political novice, claiming “it’s going to take an outsider” to fix, as he sees it, the problems with American society.

Pence took a jab at comments made previously by Ramaswamy that a president “can’t do everything”, emphasising the responsibilities that the role entails.

Ramaswamy, given the opportunity to respond, swerved the criticism and took the chance to raise his own policy proposals, quipping: “This isn’t that complicated, guys.” He then said he didn’t understand Pence’s point, who in turn offered, with a dash of smugness, to explain it to him.

“I was a House Conservative leader before it was cool,” Pence said. “Joe Biden has weakened the US at home and abroad. Now is not the time for on the job training.”

Fox News / YouTube

The moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed in human-caused climate change. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis quickly interjected, saying “we’re not schoolchildren, let’s have the debate”.

Ramaswamy jumped in next to wrongly claim: “The climate change agenda is a hoax.” He was met with a mix of cheers and boos, having previously only attracted applause for his remarks on the economy.

Chris Christie came in to respond to a suggestion by Ramaswamy that the other candidates on the stage had been “bought and paid for”. Christie said he had “had enough of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” and called Ramaswamy the “same type of amateur” that Republicans saw Barack Obama as in the 2008 presidential race.

Amid the bickering, Nikki Haley took the opportunity to quote Margaret Thatcher, saying “this is why” the former British prime minister said that “if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

After a commercial break that gave the candidates their first pause 30 minutes into the debate, the moderators turned to abortion, which is expected to be one of the most prominent issues throughout this election.

Pence reiterated his call for a sweeping nationwide ban after 15 weeks, while other candidates, including Haley and Doug Burgum, indicated instead that the matter should be left to individual states to make decisions on, with Burgum saying that “what’s going to work in New York is never going to work in North Dakota and vice versa”.

It took an hour before the “elephant not in the room” was mentioned explicitly.

The candidates – who had to pledge that they would support the ultimate Republican nominee as a prerequisite to participating in tonight’s debate – were asked whether they would still back Trump if he was convicted of a crime.

Most of them indicated they would. Christie, however, said: “Someone’s got to stop normalising this conduct. Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the President of the United States.”

Governor Asa Hutchinson stated: “I’m not going to support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony or is disqualified under our Constitution.”

Asked whether Pence made the correct decision in certifying the 2020 election results on 6 January 2021, Tim Scott said that he “absolutely” did.

DeSantis dodged the question, saying the election is not about “January 2021″ but “January 2025″, when the next president will be sworn in. Pushed on it, he said: “Mike did his duty. I have no beef with him.”

Haley said that it would be up to the public to determine whether Trump would be president but said that the US needs a “new generational Conservative leader”. She called Trump the “most disliked” politician in America and said that the Republican party “can’t win a general election that way”.

Fox News / YouTube

Turning to Ukraine, in one of the most heated discussions of the debate, the candidates were asked whether any of them would not support an increase in funding to Ukraine. Two took that line: DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

DeSantis insisted that he would “have Europe pull its weight”, while Ramaswamy said the US should “secure our own border instead of somebody else’s.”.

Taking a different stance, Christie spoke about a trip he made to Ukraine, describing the brutality carried out by the Russian army. “This is the Vladimir Putin who Donald Trump called brilliant and a genius,” Christie said.

Pence, addressing Ramaswamy, said that the US could both defend itself and the rest of the “free world”, accusing Ramaswamy of failing to understand Putin’s aims.

But Ramaswamy insisted: “Today, Ukraine is not a priority for the US… Protect this homeland.” 

Haley described Ukraine as a “pro-American country invaded by a thug” and said that eleven European countries have given more to Ukraine on a pro-capita basis on the US. “A win for Russia is a win for China,” she said. 

milwaukee-usa-23rd-aug-2023-vivek-ramaswamy-former-united-nations-ambassador-nikki-haley-and-sen-tim-scott-take-the-stage-at-the-fiserv-forum-for-the-first-republican-presidential-primary-debat Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott at the debate Alamy Alamy

The debate returned to domestic questions on crime, drugs, and immigration, which saw the candidates try to articulate how they would come down hard on issues that Republican voters will be looking for action on.

On education, DeSantis blamed Covid-19 lockdowns for gaps in children’s knowledge and paraded his moves in Florida to eliminate “critical race theory” and so-called “gender ideology” from schools, decisions for which he has received significant criticism from human rights activists.

Ramaswamy argued that “part of the problem” with education standards is that the government “pays single women more not to have a man in the house than to have a man in the house” and that education “starts with the family”.

Both Scott and Christie criticised teachers’ unions, with Scott saying reforming education would need to “break the backs” of the unions.

The candidates were asked about the inclusion or exclusion of transgender people in sports, but they largely dodged it in their responses, circling back to education. Burgum focused on how education “differs by state”, while Haley emphasised the importance of “getting kids reading”. Elsewhere, though, several candidates made a point of mocking nontraditional understandings of gender, including Scott and Ramaswamy.

The final lightning-round of questions saw Pence asked whether presidents should have to pass a mental and physical test to hold the office. 

Pence, tongue-in-cheek, said it “might be a good idea” for everyone in Washington DC to have to pass such a test, before saying: “No, the American people can make those judgements.” He added, though, that the US president should be neither too old – in a criticism of incumbent President Joe Biden – nor too young, getting in a final jab at 38-year-old Ramaswamy.

In a somewhat out-of-left field turn as the debate drew to a close, Christie was asked a question that started: “Do you believe that the recent spike in UFO encounters -”

“I get the UFO question?” Christie jumped in.

The full question ended up being whether, if he was president, would he “level with the American people” on “what the government knows” about UFOs.

“I think it’s horrible that just because I’m from New Jersey, you ask me about unidentified flying objects and martians. We’re different, but we’re not that different,” Christie said, before offering a more serious answer about the job of the president being “to level with people about everything”.

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