Here Are the Key Takeaways From the First Republican Debate

Republican presidential candidates were largely united in their criticism of President Joe Biden’s economic record in Wednesday’s debate but sparred over foreign policy, the border and abortion rights.

(Bloomberg) — Republican presidential candidates were largely united in their criticism of President Joe Biden’s economic record in Wednesday’s debate but sparred over foreign policy, the border and abortion rights.

Absent from the event — and also largely from the discussion — was former President Donald Trump, the clear frontrunner for the nomination. When asked if they would support Trump as the nominee, even if he’s convicted of a felony, all but former governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas raised their hands. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is running a distant second in polls, was expected to be the main target, but ended up on the sidelines of the most intense sparring. 

Instead, the action was centered on a trio of lower-polling candidates — former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Christie —  giving them a chance to show off both their policy positions and their political prowess.

Here are key takeaways from the first Republican presidential debate:

DeSantis Dodges Bombs  

Positioned literally at center stage, DeSantis fiercely defended his record in Florida on Covid-19 and taking swipes at former top White House Covid adviser Anthony Fauci.

But after some initial fiery responses, he largely stayed above the fray. He wasn’t the top target of other candidates’ attacks, despite the fact that he’s the only candidate other than Trump polling in double digits.

Instead, Ramaswamy dished out and received much of the pointed attacks, telling his opponents he’s the only one who isn’t “bought and paid for.” He also said Republicans shouldn’t elect a “super PAC puppet,” a thinly veiled jab at DeSantis.

Ramaswamy also used the debate to introduce himself to voters. Mimicking former President Barack Obama’s breakout performance at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he referred to himself as a “skinny guy with a funny name,” drawing a sharp rebuke from Christie. 

“I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie shot back, adding that Ramaswamy’s lines sounded like they were written by ChatGPT.

Read more: DeSantis Vows to Send US Military Into Mexico to Stop Fentanyl

Haley v. Ramaswamy on Ukraine, China

Haley and Ramaswamy grabbed much of the attention during the debate, sparring repeatedly over foreign policy.  

Ramaswamy identified China as the US’s chief national security challenge, saying that “Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America.”

That prompted a sharp rebuke from Haley, in which she accused Ramaswamy of having “no foreign policy experience” and said he “wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel, you don’t do that to friends.” The response drew her biggest applause of the night.

In response, Ramaswamy accused Haley of seeking seats on the boards of military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. He said he didn’t want to see military resources spent abroad but used to defend the southern border. Other candidates briefly touched on the challenge posed by China before pivoting to other topics.

Ukraine Funding Fight

DeSantis, echoing an argument Trump often made in office, said Europe should “pull their weight” and his support would be contingent on European countries doing more.

While the US has contributed about $77 billion to the defense of Ukraine, European countries and institutions have contributed about 68.3 billion euros ($74.2 billion), with Germany leading the spending, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Ramaswamy said support for Ukraine is pushing Russia into China’s hands, while Haley cited the presumed death Wednesday of Yevgeny Prigozhin — who led a mutiny that posed the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s almost quarter-century rule — as a reason why the US must maintain its backing for Kyiv. 

“We’re trying to prevent war. Look at what Putin did today. He killed Prigozhin,”  she said, although reports of his death are unconfirmed.

Christie noted that he visited Kyiv to learn more about what the Russian military was doing there and described violent scenes of soldiers being shot and women and being raped.

“This is the Vladimir Putin who Donald Trump called brilliant and a genius. If we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next,” Christie said.

Biden’s campaign was quick to respond.

“Some MAGA Republicans running for president of the United States sided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over the Ukrainian people fighting for their democracy,” spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement.

Bidenomics as a Weapon

A series of questions about economic challenges — higher prices, increases in mortgage rates and the US debt load — gave the candidates the chance to opine on a topic they were all eager to talk about: Biden’s economic record, which he calls Bidenomics.

But Haley didn’t limit her criticism to Biden: She called out her fellow Republicans who voted for spending increases in Congress.

“The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us, too, when they passed that $2.2 trillion Covid stimulus bill,” she said.

Republicans are striving to turn Biden’s signature legislative achievements into a liability. The president is basing his reelection bid on his investments in renewable energy, semiconductor production and infrastructure. Republicans want to highlight inflation and the highest home borrowing costs in more than two decades.

“Joe Biden’s Bidenomics has led to the loss of $10,000 of spending power for the average family,” South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said.

Anti-Abortion Bona Fides

DeSantis, Haley and Pence sparred over which of them has the most authentic opposition to abortion, relying on personal stories to establish their pro-life credentials.

DeSantis, who signed a bill to prohibit abortions in Florida after six weeks, said one of the “most impactful moments” of his life was hearing his unborn daughter’s heartbeat.

Haley, who was the only woman on the stage, said abortion rights should be decided by the states, rather than at the federal level. She cited her adopted husband and her own struggles with infertility for her views.

Pence said his longstanding Christian faith means he’s “not new” to opposing abortion access.

Abortion remains a liability for Republicans’ political prospects heading into 2024. Democrats have sought to rally voters around the issue. After the Supreme Court last year overturned the nationwide right to the procedure, Democrats lodged better-than-expected results in the midterm elections months later.

Voters, even in Republican-led states, have rejected measures that would limit abortion access, including recent measures in Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio.

–With assistance from Gregory Korte and Stephanie Lai.

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