Updated Aug 24, 2023, 6:50am EDT

Here’s what really mattered in the first 2024 Republican debate

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The News

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Freed from the shadow of Donald Trump at least a bit, the eight Republican candidates at the Fox News debate made the most of their time in the national spotlight. There were friendly introductions, fierce pile-ons, and some highly revealing moments around the party’s touchiest subjects, including abortion and January 6th. Here’s what stood out to us as the most important takeaways.

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Our View

The candidates are ambivalent about Trump. Let’s get the moment, pictured above, out of the way at the start: Asked to raise their hands if they’d support Trump if he’s convicted of crimes, everyone but Asa Hutchinson did. That initially included Christie, who quickly said it was a different hand gesture, as well as Pence and DeSantis, both a little slower than the rest. “Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct, okay?” Christie said in an extended answer afterwards that drew boos and cheers.

Candidates haven’t figured out how to deal with Trump on the trail, and they didn’t seem to have a clear answer here either, though questions about him were mercifully rare. Few mentioned the frontrunner at all unless pressed, and only Pence and Christie delivered meaty responses to questions about January 6th.

DeSantis seemed more uncomfortable with that topic than any other issue: “This election is not about January 6 of 2021, it’s about January 20 of 2025,” he said, naming the date of an inauguration ceremony Trump was impeached and then repeatedly indicted for trying to subvert. Pressed on whether Pence did the right thing in certifying the election, he eventually responded: “Mike did his duty, I’ve got no beef with him.” While plenty of candidates echoed Trump’s complaints about “weaponized” government, only Vivek Ramaswamy tried to carve out a clear lane as an enthusiastic Trump defender. Mostly they just seemed exhausted by — and unsure what to do about — the runaway polling leader.

“If they weren’t talking about Donald Trump, they were talking about his policies,” top Trump aide Chris LaCivita said. “So from our standpoint, that was a win.”


Abortion is a real problem for the field. There were real differences between the candidates here, but the overall picture was a party that’s still deeply uneasy with its position. Moderators framed the abortion issue, from the outset, as a political problem — not a moral issue, as anti-abortion activists see it. Just hours after South Carolina’s supreme court upheld the state’s six-week abortion limit, neither of the South Carolinians onstage were pressed to take a position on it. Haley was asked what she’d say about it to “women, suburban voters, across this country” — she emphasized that Republicans should minimize discussion of a federal ban that was unlikely to pass — while Scott restated his support for a 15-week limit at the federal level.

Asked about a donor who fretted that Florida’s six-week limit was a political problem, DeSantis pointed to his 2022 landslide re-election — but he only signed the six-week bill after he won, refusing to take a position on it during the campaign. He also dodged on whether he’d sign a federal version of the same law, a moment Democrats undoubtedly were happy to clip and save.

Pence and Scott came out clearly for a federal 15-week limit, Burgum clearly for letting states sort it out. But the abortion round ended up letting candidates mostly repeat the argument that conservatives see as most electorally safe, that Democrats should be pressed on their unpopular no-limits stance, without drilling in on those differences. “The initial question was half baked,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America, which has demanded that candidates back a 15-week limit.

Everyone hates Vivek. No one disguised their irritation at Ramaswamy, who laughed out loud when attacked and patronized his rivals as “bought off” and “career politicians.” Even the candidates who didn’t mix it up with him radiated contempt; Asa Hutchinson wore an American/Israeli flag plan, a squint-and-you-miss it reference to the billionaire’s insistence that Israel won’t need foreign aid after he makes peace in the Middle East.

He took more incoming fire than any other contender, far more than DeSantis. There was a strategy there — Ramaswamy had been rising in the polls, but is only starting to get scrutiny over his changing positions, like his stance on Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021. He talked over Christie’s attempt to point out that evolution, from condemning Trump to promising him a pardon. But it also seemed personal — Pence, Haley, and everyone else with governing experience was fed up with a swaggering 38-year old who assumed the presidency would be easy. After Ramaswamy accused the field of using “memorized prepared slogans,” a bemused Pence responded: “Is that one of yours?”


Tricia McLaughlin, his communications director, argued afterwards that the attacks showed the debate was “Vivek Ramaswamy versus establishment.”

The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin offered another theory as to why Ramaswamy touched a nerve: “The service Vivek offers is pulling the mask off this non-primary, making it clear he (and others) are running for 2028 and not to stop Trump.”

Trump was not the winner of this debate.“You watch what happens in the polls,” Donald Trump, Jr. told reporters after the debate, as he and other Trump campaign surrogates roamed the media room. “Over the coming weeks, he’s gonna have even a larger lead, in my opinion, because the American people understand that he’s about action.”

Maybe, maybe not. Trump’s logic for skipping the debate seemed perfectly sound: He has a huge lead, why bother risking it? But the candidates also showed up energized and each one got a relatively clean chance to deliver their core pitch and provide at least an implicit contrast. It was the first time a national audience got a real look at what a party without Trump might feel like.

Trump’s team, confident that nobody had threatened his lead, speculated that the second tier might shift around after Wednesday. The consensus, from multiple campaigns, was that Haley helped herself, DeSantis was solid, and that Scott made no mistakes but little impression. From Haley’s first answer — a whack at Trump (by name) for adding trillions to the national debt — she joined Pence in the small club of candidates clearly not running for vice president. Scott was consciously “above the fray,” as his campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper put it, which she said made for less speaking time, but also “less shouting time” that turned off voters.


Ukraine is a flashpoint. Questions on Ukraine aid prompted some of the widest disagreements on stage: Mike Pence took the Reagan-esque approach, saying that “we achieve peace through strength, and America needs to stand for freedom.” DeSantis hedged, arguing that U.S. “support should be contingent” on other countries contributing more. After the debate, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, one of the first DeSantis endorsers, said that the candidate was clearly supportive of using a “small percentage of overall defense spending” to help Ukraine.

“If Putin is going to be a bully and try to attack a country, yeah, we should step up and we should help there, and we should help punch that bully back,” said Stitt. “I think that’s what DeSantis was saying as well.”

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, came out swinging against providing more aid, taking yet another dig at Pence in the process and declaring that the country’s “real threat” is “communist China.” This topic also provided Haley with her shining moment of the evening: She accused Ramaswamy of “choosing a murderer” over a U.S. ally and then declared that the political newcomer has “no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” The crowd erupted in cheers, but we’ll see how it translates outside of the room: Polls show conservatives becoming increasingly wary of new funding.

DeSantis is still in limbo. DeSantis came in hot and stayed that way, delivering fired-up versions of his campaign applause lines that often lit up the in-person audience. But after his own campaign predicted he’d be the “center of attacks” in a Trumpless debate, he faced more neglect than abuse. James Uthmeier, his campaign manager, admitted the lack of attacks were “a little surprising,” but argued it was in part because DeSantis “came out so strong” that his opponents “didn’t really want to invoke his name and give him more opportunity” to speak to voters.

He also was the slipperiest of any candidate, shooting down a simple question on climate change, dodging a question on whether he’d support a federal version of Florida’s 6-week abortion ban, and talking around a question on Jan. 6 before offhandedly suggesting Pence did the right thing (Christie derided it as “grudging credit”). Other candidates have struggled with similar topics on the trail, but seemed to settle on a more confident answer — and really, core brand — by the time of the debate.

Fox News lost control of the debate. You thought no Trump would mean a respectful debate for the moderators? Nope! Candidates spent two hours going big for the applause lines, rejecting the premise of questions posed by Baier and MacCallum, and sometimes even ignoring the probes in their answers. Candidates also consistently dismissed the timer designed to keep answers short and tidy: At one point, Baier chastised those on stage, pointedly highlighting the buzzer noise and reminding the candidates that it meant their time was up. Towards the end of the two hours — as Pence and Vivek started up another shouting match — Haley even begged the moderators “to get control of this debate.” As the saying goes, the candidates are not here to make friends, and that includes their hosts.