One thing was clear when former President Donald J. Trump decided to skip the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary race: There would be a vacuum to fill.
But it was not Mr. Trump’s chief rival in the polls, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who emerged at the epicenter of the first Trump-free showdown on Wednesday, but instead the political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, whose unlikely rise has revealed the remarkable degree to which the former president has remade the party.
Mr. DeSantis had stumbled heading into the debate and was widely seen as in need of a stabilizing performance. He sought it by largely avoiding the scrum and sticking closely to the core case he makes on the stump, hoping to gain incremental ground in front of a national audience.
All eight candidates mostly jostled for position among themselves, and few targeted the front-runner who is set to surrender on Thursday after his fourth criminal indictment.
Here are seven takeaways.
It was the Ramaswamy show.
‘I’m Not a Politician,’ Ramaswamy Says During Republican Debate
The audience cheered loudly for Vivek Ramaswamy, who said that it was going to take a political outsider, like himself, to preserve the American dream.
00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:01.950 I’ll tell you, I’m not a politician, Bret. 00:00:01.950 —> 00:00:03.120 You’re right about that. 00:00:03.120 —> 00:00:05.930 I’m an entrepreneur. My parents came to this country 00:00:05.930 —> 00:00:07.950 with no money 40 years ago. 00:00:07.950 —> 00:00:10.940 I have gone on to found multibillion-dollar 00:00:10.940 —> 00:00:11.840 companies. 00:00:11.840 —> 00:00:13.700 I did it while marrying my wife, Apoorva. 00:00:13.700 —> 00:00:15.420 Raising our two sons. 00:00:15.420 —> 00:00:17.310 Following our faith in God. 00:00:17.310 —> 00:00:19.160 That is the American dream. 00:00:19.160 —> 00:00:22.730 And I am genuinely worried that that American dream will not 00:00:22.730 —> 00:00:25.430 exist for our two sons and their generation 00:00:25.430 —> 00:00:26.780 unless we do something about it. 00:00:26.780 —> 00:00:28.280 And I do think, Bret, it’s going to take 00:00:28.280 —> 00:00:29.887 an outsider because for a long time 00:00:29.887 —> 00:00:31.970 we have professional politicians in the Republican 00:00:31.970 —> 00:00:34.250 Party who have been running from something. 00:00:34.250 —> 00:00:37.700 Now is our moment to start running to something, 00:00:37.700 —> 00:00:43.240 to our vision of what it means to be an American today.
Six months ago, the idea that Mr. Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, would be standing center stage at a Republican presidential debate would have seemed unimaginable.
And yet there he was, leaning into that fact with a line echoing one used famously by Barack Obama, asking, “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?”
That skinny guy quickly became a punching bag for rivals, led by former Vice President Mike Pence, who invoked his experience to say that it wasn’t time for a “rookie” who needed “on-the-job training.” Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey recalled the Obama line, quipping, “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”
But Mr. Ramaswamy smiled his way through the night, delighting in the attention as he staked out positions that might be unpopular among his competitors — cutting funding for Ukraine’s war effort (he mocked the country’s president as “their pope”), and promising to pre-emptively pardon Mr. Trump — but that resonate with the Republican base.
He hewed closely to Mr. Trump not just on substance but also on style. He stirred controversy to soak up screen time, and lobbed some of the evening’s most strikingly personal slights: accusing Mr. Christie of auditioning for an MSNBC contract, Nikki Haley of having her eye on lucrative private-sector jobs and declaring — to some boos — that he was the only candidate not bought and paid for by special interests.
The Harvard-educated Mr. Ramaswamy came off at times as slick — Mr. Christie dismissed him as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” — but he was the one everyone else was talking about, a victory in itself.
DeSantis avoided attacks — and ended up on the periphery.
Ron DeSantis Sidesteps Question About Climate Change
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida avoided answering a question about whether he believes human behavior is causing climate change.
“So we want to start on this with a show of hands. Do you believe in human behavior is causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.” “Look, we’re not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate. I mean, I’m happy to take it to start. Alexander, so do you want to raise your hand or not? I don’t think that’s the way to do. So Let me just say to Alexander this. First of all, one of the reasons our country’s declined is because of the way the corporate media treats Republicans versus Democrats. Biden was on the beach while those people were suffering. He was asked about it and he said, ‘No comment.’ Are you kidding me? As somebody that’s handled disasters in Florida, you’ve got to be activated. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be present. You’ve got to be helping people who are doing this.” “Can we stop and answer the question.” “And here’s the deal.“ “Let’s just answer the question.” “Is that a Yes? Is that a yes? Is that a hand raise?”
Before the debate, Mr. DeSantis’s aides had predicted that he would be the center of attacks. So much for that.
Rivals mostly ignored him, despite his status as the polling leader on the stage. It was a surprising turn of events that allowed Mr. DeSantis to make his own points without interruption or interrogation.
But it often relegated him to the sidelines. He spoke for two minutes less than Mr. Pence, only the fourth most speaking time of the eight candidates — hardly the expected outcome without Mr. Trump.
In fact, the moment when Mr. DeSantis most exerted his authority came against Fox News’s moderators, when he successfully steamrollered an attempt to have candidates raise their hands over whether they believed in human-caused climate change.
It felt like something of a fleeting alpha moment for a candidate in need of one.
But it was his hesitancy at another hand-raising question that captured one of the central conundrums of his candidacy: how to position himself versus Mr. Trump. When the moderators asked who would support Mr. Trump even if he were convicted in his criminal cases, Mr. DeSantis appeared to pause as each of the four candidates to his left, one by one, raised their hands before he did.
He did cite his biography in ways some advisers have wanted, unfurling a rare personal anecdote about seeing “the sonograms of all three of my kids” as he explained why he had signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida. But some core DeSantis lines were conspicuously absent: He did not talk about Disney or invoke his war on “woke.”
Policy clashes showed G.O.P. divides.
Candidates Clash Over Foreign Policy
Mike Pence and Nikki Haley both advocated for helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia, while Vivek Ramaswamy said America should no longer support Ukraine.
“Vivek, if we do the giveaway that you want to give to Putin to give him his land, it’s not going to be too long before he rolls across a NATO border. And frankly, our men and women of our armed forces are going to have to go and fight him.” “I have a newsflash, the U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore. It fell back in 1990.” “Ukraine is the first line of defense for us. And the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is, he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia.” “There you have it.” “Under your watch, you will make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience. And it shows.” “And you know what, the foreign policy experience that you all have —”
More than any other issue, the question of America’s role in Ukraine divided the candidates and presented two divergent visions for the Republican Party.
On one side stood the Reaganite interventionists, Ms. Haley and Mr. Pence. They argued for an America that should stand for freedom and against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
On the other side stood Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy, who questioned whether supporting Ukraine was in America’s national interest. Mr. Ramaswamy was unequivocal: America should no longer support Ukraine.
Mr. DeSantis left himself more wiggle room, leaving open sending more U.S. aid to Ukraine, but saying European countries needed to chip in more.
Democrats watching the debate — including President Biden — immediately seized on the Republican answers on climate change. When the candidates were asked if they believed human behavior was causing climate change, most seemed to want nothing to do with the question.
Only two were unequivocal: Mr. Ramaswamy, who called climate change a “hoax,” and Ms. Haley, who said climate change was “real.” Mr. DeSantis rejected a request by the moderators for a show of hands, saying: “We are not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate.”
On abortion, the main debate was over whether it should be banned federally or at the state level. Mr. Pence and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who had a quiet night, argued for a national 15-week ban. Ms. Haley argued that a national ban was politically impractical. Mr. DeSantis indicated the issue should be left to the states.
Pence came out punching.
‘I Chose the Constitution,’ Pence Says
Former Vice President Mike Pence said he stood up to pressure from former President Donald J. Trump to overturn the 2020 election.
00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:03.060 The American people deserve to know that 00:00:03.060 —> 00:00:06.070 the president asked me, 00:00:06.070 —> 00:00:09.940 in his request that I reject or return votes unilaterally — 00:00:09.940 —> 00:00:12.130 power that no vice president in American history 00:00:12.130 —> 00:00:14.740 had ever exercised or taken — 00:00:14.740 —> 00:00:17.590 he asked me to put him over the Constitution. 00:00:17.590 —> 00:00:20.300 And I chose the Constitution, 00:00:20.300 —> 00:00:22.860 and I always will.
Mr. Pence made the most of every moment, crowbarring his way into almost every exchange, regardless of whether his name had been mentioned. He was so surprisingly aggressive that Bret Baier, one of the moderators, repeatedly urged him to stick to his allotted time.
Mr. Pence staked out the most anti-abortion position, arguing for a 15-week national ban and chiding his opponents who ducked the question — suggesting they were acting out of political expediency rather than morality. “Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he told Ms. Haley. More than once, he made a more assertive case than Mr. Scott did on issues prized by evangelical voters, whom the two men are competing over.
But Mr. Pence saved his sharpest attacks for Mr. Ramaswamy. His disdain for the young entrepreneur recalled the visceral contempt Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota displayed for the cocky young mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, during the 2020 Democratic primary debates.
“I was a House conservative leader before it was cool,” Mr. Pence said at one point.
But running as the experienced hand has been a tough sell in Republican primaries in recent years.
Haley positioned herself as the pragmatist.
Haley Slams Republican Party for Debt Crisis
Nikki Haley criticized fellow Republican presidential candidates for raising the national debt, saying that both parties were responsible.
00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:01.530 You have Ron DeSantis. 00:00:01.530 —> 00:00:02.700 You’ve got Tim Scott. 00:00:02.700 —> 00:00:03.840 You’ve got Mike Pence. 00:00:03.840 —> 00:00:05.670 They all voted to raise the debt. 00:00:05.670 —> 00:00:09.900 And Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt. 00:00:09.900 —> 00:00:12.180 And our kids are never going to forgive us for this. 00:00:12.180 —> 00:00:15.770 And so at the end of the day, you look at the 2024 budget, 00:00:15.770 —> 00:00:19.940 Republicans asked for 7.4 billion in earmarks. 00:00:19.940 —> 00:00:22.320 Democrats asked for $2.8 billion. 00:00:22.320 —> 00:00:24.090 So you tell me, who are the big spenders? 00:00:24.090 —> 00:00:26.090 I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House
There is little evidence in the Trumpian Republican Party that a moderate voice can succeed in presidential primaries. But during the debate, Ms. Haley seemed determined to try to do just that.
Instead of tacking right, Ms. Haley offered the closest thing to a general-election argument that any candidate delivered, highlighting herself as the only woman present.
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” she said — a canned rendition of a Margaret Thatcher line, but one that landed.
At another point, Ms. Haley, a former United Nations ambassador under Mr. Trump, turned some of her fire on her own party about the country’s national debt.
“The truth isn’t that Biden did this to us, our Republicans did this to us, too,” Ms. Haley said.
Her most aggressive moments came during an intense back-and-forth with Mr. Ramaswamy about Ukraine aid. She came charging at him: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Fox News panned out to show the crowd cheering.
Boos underscored Christie’s challenge.
Chris Christie Booed by Audience During Debate
Chris Christie could barely respond to Vivek Ramaswamy as the audience booed the former governor of New Jersey.
“We cannot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents. It is wrong. We have to end the weaponization of justice in this country.” “30 seconds, governor.” “Let me tell you something.” “I’m sorry, 30 seconds, Governor Christie.” “You make me laugh because you sit — you sit here in an answer, you sit here in an answer. [Boos] “Hold on one second.”
On a crowded, chaotic debate stage — which has often been Mr. Christie’s best format — he did not stand out as he has in the past.
Running for president a second time, he generally accomplished what he set out to do: Argue that Mr. Trump, whom he once supported, has engaged in conduct unfit for a president.
The problem for Mr. Christie was that he was booed lustily by the crowd nearly every time he leveled those criticisms. And his attacks came less frequently than many political watchers had anticipated. He let some opportunities to swing at Mr. Trump go by, especially in the first hour.
Mr. Ramaswamy also got the last word in a contentious exchange, reminding the Republican primary audience that Mr. Christie had embraced Mr. Obama during hurricane recovery efforts in New Jersey in 2012. That hug has angered Republican voters ever since.
When, in the second hour, Mr. Christie found a groove against Mr. Trump, the audience repeatedly drowned him out, a fact that Mr. Trump’s social media site, Truth Social, took note of with an alert to users.
It all underscored the difficulty of Mr. Christie’s task.
Trump avoided the debate, and meaningful attacks.
Some Candidates Pledge to Support Trump Even if He’s Convicted
The moderators asked the Republican presidential candidates if they would support former President Donald J. Trump as the Republican nominee, even if he’s convicted in a court of law.
00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:04.040 If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, 00:00:04.040 —> 00:00:07.560 would you still support him as your party’s choice? 00:00:07.560 —> 00:00:10.990 Please raise your hand if you would.
All eight Republicans onstage had to sign a pledge that they would support the party’s eventual nominee — even if it ends up being the man who skipped the debate and in doing so refused to make such a promise himself.
Throughout the night, Mr. Trump was something of spectral presence — not there, yet omnipresent.
While Mr. Christie and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas criticized him from the wings of the stage, no one fully took advantage of the front-runner’s absence.
“I’m incredibly proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration,” Mr. Pence said at one point. Mr. Ramaswamy called Mr. Trump the greatest president this century.
Most candidates stood with Mr. Pence for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he stood up to Mr. Trump’s pressure to overturn the 2020 election. But few leaned into the topic. “We’ve answered this so many times,” Mr. DeSantis protested, before eventually relenting. “Mike did his duty; I’ve got no beef with him.”
It all amounted to a relatively warm embrace for the candidate running laps around them in polls, and an evening that seemed unlikely to upset the status quo in a race that Mr. Trump has dominated.
Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. More about Shane Goldmacher
Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. More about Jonathan Swan
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. More about Maggie Haberman
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