ANALYSIS — Republican presidential hopefuls sparred over a national abortion ban, the criminal charges former President Donald Trump is facing and other issues in a feisty primary debate with no clear winner.
With Trump skipping the two-hour event, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy — now polling in third place nationally — made the most of his center stage placement, trading rhetorical blows with just about everyone on stage. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized Trump over his demands that Pence in January 2021 block Congress’ counting of states’ Electoral College votes.
The Milwaukee audience sounded least impressed with Christie, who repeatedly conjured loud boos any time he said a negative word about the former president. Republicans, if they hope to win back the White House next November, must “dispense” of Trump, who he contended wants to “suspend the Constitution,” Christie said, to jeers.
[Full transcript of the debate]
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was among the most aggressive debaters, and was the first to utter a critical word about Trump. While she garnered loud cheers several times, she was met with jeers when she said Trump’s low likability numbers outside the GOP would hand Democrats the 2024 election.
Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador, and Pence aligned on several issues, including when they went hard at Ramaswamy over what she said was his call to “hand” Ukraine over to Russia. She described the entrepreneur as naive, saying: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”
The spirited — and, at times, substantive — debate went off without Trump, who leads in key primary battleground states and is up by nearly 40 points nationally. FiveThirtyEight’s average of several national polls puts Trump ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by 36.9 percentage points, with DeSantis this month falling below 20 percent; no other GOP candidate polls in the double digits.
Some political analysts say it was a wise tactic for Trump to skip this and future debates unless his hefty lead in some national polls shrinks. Why risk a national television stumble that could cause voters to defect to another GOP candidate? After all, his lead has grown despite being indicted four times since March.
"I'm in the camp that there is no reason for Trump to debate. I do find it notable that he could have chosen a chaos theory counter programming by surrendering in Georgia, or a more staid sit down conversation," former GOP Rep. David Jolly of Florida said in a Tuesday email.
"Choosing the latter indicates that he wants the contrast Wednesday to be one of his stature as a former president, a candidate of one, and not the role of victim," Jolly added.
Trump counter-programmed the debate with an interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, which was released on X, formerly known as Twitter. What’s more, he appears to be banking his arrest Thursday evening on state charges related to trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results will drown out post-debate analysis on television and social media.
When Carlson asked him if “open conflict” is possible over his legal cases and the 2024 election, Trump replied: “I can say this, there’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen. There’s a level of of hatred that I’ve never seen. And that’s probably a bad combination.”
Even without him, Trump was a part of the debate, along with issues the next president will surely deal with.
Asked whether, if elected, they would propose a nationwide ban on procedures that end pregnancies, the candidates offered other ideas.
Several floated a 15-week federal abortion prohibition, while Haley called for “consensus.” She said Republicans need to be honest that they lack the votes in the Senate — 60 yes votes would be needed — to pass such a bill.
Pence shot back minutes later with this: “Consensus is the opposite of leadership.” Along with taking credit for the Trump administration getting appointees to the Supreme Court who overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent granting a federal right to abortion, Pence said there was national support for a 15-week ban.
Haley objected, saying it has been decades since there were 60 pro-life senators. “Don’t make women think they have to decide on this. Seventy percent of the Senate does not” support a federal abortion ban, she said in one of the event’s more powerful moments.
Trump’s legal baggage
Only Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not raise their hands when asked if they would vote for Trump if was the GOP nominee and then convicted in any of four federal and state cases.
Pence repeated his line that in the run-up to Jan. 6, Trump “asked me to put him over the Constitution,” which he refused to do. While he said Trump deserves his days in court and a presumption of innocence, Pence also said “no one is above the law.”
Christie, who said months ago he entered the race in part to tell the “truth” about Trump’s fitness for another term, was more direct.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct. Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are wrong, the conduct is beneath the president of the United States,” he said. “And, you know, this is the great thing about this country: Booing is allowed. But it doesn’t change the truth. ... We have to dispense with the person who said we need to suspend the Constitution to put forward his political career."
The crowd was already booing. The volume was turned up as Christie uttered the last part.
Other candidates on the stage opted against criticizing Trump. Instead, DeSantis said Republicans’ top priority should be “ending the weaponization of the federal government.”
While several candidates dodged a question from the Fox News moderators about if Pence did the right thing defying Trump on Jan. 6, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina replied: "Absolutely."
DeSantis and Ramaswamy slammed President Joe Biden and some GOP lawmakers for sending billions in military and economic aid to Ukraine, warning China is the country’s biggest threat.
“We can do both,” Haley said as her rivals said the next president should focus more time on combating China. Polls show most Republican voters oppose sending more aid to Ukraine, putting Haley out of step with the very voters she is trying to win over.
Ramaswamy raised eyebrows by warning a China-Russia “military alliance” is the top threat to the U.S. But if Washington cut off the aid spigot to Ukraine, that likely would help Moscow win that war.
Haley pounced, telling the 38-year-old candidate Russia would pivot to invasions of other Eastern European countries that the U.S. is bound by NATO to defend with its own troops.
After a mostly civil start, Haley — the lone woman on the stage — was the first to jab at the other seven participants. And Trump.
"Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt," she said, later getting a shout out for her assessment from Biden on X.
Haley said most Republicans blame Democrats for Washington’s spending habits, but “our Republicans did this to us, too.” She dinged the Trump administration for a massive COVID-19 relief bill and GOP lawmakers for their habit of requesting earmarks. “These are taxpayers’ dollars,” Haley said to applause.
She went right after three others on the stage for their votes in the House and Senate she said “raised the debt” — Scott, Pence and DeSantis.
“These are taxpayer dollars,” Haley said. “Our kids are never going to forgive us for this. … You tell me who are the big spenders.”