12:05 p.m. ET, August 24, 2023
What you need to know about the first GOP presidential primary debate
Republican presidential candidates take the stage before the debate on August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
If you're just catching up, here's what you need to know:
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. And because he has positioned himself as a defender of Trump, Ramaswamy was, at times, a stand-in for the former president, who momentarily ceded the stage Wednesday night but will take it back Thursday when he turns himself in at the Fulton County jail in Georgia as he faces election subversion charges.
Ron DeSantis set the expectation that he would be the focal point of Wednesday’s debate. He was anything but. He certainly didn’t speak the most. Though his campaign suggested his Republican opponents would have their “knives out” for DeSantis, he wasn’t on the receiving end of many attacks. And at a key moment – when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he is convicted in a court of law – DeSantis peeked around the stage to see how everyone else had responded before he half heartedly put up his right palm.
When moderators asked DeSantis whether Pence was right to reject Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the Florida governor attempted to dodge – ignoring what he’d been asked and complaining about the “weaponization” of the federal government. But Pence dug in, putting DeSantis on the spot.
“The American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day. There’s no more important duty, so answer the question,” he said.
“Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said, attempting to quickly move on. The moment illustrated how cautious the Florida governor is of alienating Trump’s base.
Chris Christie doesn’t have a breakout moment. While Christie’s “ChatGPT” line was reminiscent of his past debate performance, he failed to trip up Ramaswamy. Instead, the Ohio businessman went on to attack him over his criticism of Trump. Asked if he would support the former president if he’s convicted of a crime, Christie said the party needs to stop “normalizing this conduct,” drawing boos from the crowd.
Tim Scott stuck to Mr. Nice Guy routine. The problem was that approach kept him out of most of the exchanges. While the other candidates were debating and skirmishing over abortion, Ukraine or whether Trump should be pardoned, Scott wasn’t really in it. He did try and insert himself with warnings about the “weaponization” of the federal government and crime in America. But all of his comments and arguments faded into the background as candidates piled on Ramaswamy or Christie praised Pence for his actions on January 6, 2021.
When Scott did get a chance to weigh in on the southern border, illegal immigration and fentanyl, he offered a long answer about how important and easy it would be to finish Trump’s border wall.
“As the next president of the United States, I will make that border wall complete,” Scott said, extending each word in that concluding sentence. He paused for applause. There was none.