The first Republican debate on Wednesday night showed eight candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, while the frontrunner did not bother to show up.
- Eight candidates took the stage in Milwaukee last night—Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum, Mike Pence, and Asa Hutchinson.
- Vivek Ramaswamy took most of the flack from opposing candidates during the debate but walked away with many of the night’s showiest lines and moments.
- Pence and Christie performed fairly poorly, while Haley performed the best out of the low-percentage candidates. Ron DeSantis held his own and received surprisingly low flack despite leading the field in second place.
- Former President Donald Trump avoided the event for an interview with Tucker Carlson, drawing 195 million impressions on X.com.
Why It’s Important
Despite the absence of frontrunner Trump, Wednesday’s debate was largely defined by him, with many of the candidates symbolically embracing or forsaking his style of politics for political gain. Ramaswamy has taken a surge in polling due to his attempts to pick up the Trump legacy, resulting in him sparring with other candidates during the debate who want to distance themselves from Trump.
Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old billionaire entrepreneur, has sold his entire campaign since February on “anti-wokeness” and embracing most of Trump’s talking points on religion, education, foreign policy, and economics. He declared “the climate change agenda is a hoax” and called for “war on the federal administrative state.” This performance will likely set the stage for him as the leading vice presidential candidate if Trump successfully ceases the presidential ticket during the primaries—having called Trump “the best president of the 21st century.”
DeSantis held his own strongly, a good show to his critics and supporters who fear that he lacks the ability to maintain his campaign in distant second place, with former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli declaring him “the most presidential looking candidate on the stage.”
It does not help these candidates that the debate is set to be immediately overshadowed by Thursday’s scheduled arrest and mugshot of Trump by the Fulton County Police, with the former president expected to go to trial for his fifth indictment over allegations of attempting to overturn the 2020 Georgia election results. His appearance on Tucker on X also showed that millions of voters are happy to snub the Republican field in favor of Trump.
Trump’s popularity has consistently increased in response to all of his indictments and lawsuits, many of which are scheduled to go to court during and after the spring 2024 primary season. FiveThirtyEight reports Trump leads the field in popularity (52.1%), followed by DeSantis (15.2%), Ramaswamy (9.7%), Pence (4.3%), Scott (3.6%), Haley (3.4%), and Christie (3.3%). No other candidates have more than 1%.
“Much of the night was a beguiling peek into an alternate reality where Donald Trump isn’t running for president. But no matter how nice it was to hear talented Republicans (mostly) discuss things other than Donald Trump, the sad fact is if he had been there, he likely would have completely dominated the stage,” says National Review Online editor Rich Lowry.