With Donald Trump skipping the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate, eight of his primary rivals brawled for second-place status Wednesday night.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and first-time candidate, was alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the center of the stage — and he was the central figure for much of the night.
The debate played out in front of a rowdy crowd of about 4,000 people at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The crowd’s reactions — including jeers and boos when candidates criticized Trump — at times drowned out the Fox News moderators.
Here are some takeaways from the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate:
Taking shots at Ramaswamy: With Trump absent from Wednesday’s debate, the early target was Ramaswamy. The first jab came from former Vice President Mike Pence: “Vivek, you recently said a president can’t do everything. Well, I’ve got news for you, Vivek. I’ve been in the hallway. I’ve been in the West Wing. The president of the United States has to confront every crisis facing America.”
That spurred a heated back-and-forth and light name-calling between the two candidates. Later, in the first bit of the debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy’s answers to something cranked out by ChatGPT.
Distinctions over abortion: More than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion policy is still a tricky issue for Republican candidates caught between the need to demonstrate their anti-abortion bona fides and address the realities of the political landscape, where voters have rejected stringent abortion restrictions and the candidates who backed them.
At one end of the spectrum stood former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who sparred with Pence over the possibility of passing a federal ban. She instead pushed for consensus on issues such as encouraging adoption and allowing doctors and nurses with moral objections to the procedure the right not to perform them.
Pence wasn’t willing to go further than endorsing a 15-week federal abortion ban, the cutoff offered in a bill South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced last year. Scott also backed the 15-week ban onstage.
Two candidates who have signed a six-week abortion ban into law — DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — stopped short of saying they would do the same nationally.
Haley leans toward general election: Haley brought onto the stage Wednesday a message that was geared more directly toward a general electorate than those of her rivals. What’s less clear is whether she did enough to impress Republican voters to get there.
She was one of the few candidates to acknowledge that climate change is real.
She was also the first to criticize Trump by name, pointing to rising spending during his presidency. She praised Pence’s actions on January 6, 2021, despite Trump’s pressure on the former vice president to seek to overturn the 2020 election result. Haley also called her former boss the “most disliked politician in America.”
And she hammered Ramaswamy during an exchange over Russia, as Haley defended the United States’ support for Ukraine.