MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — For those who thought a Trump-less GOP presidential primary debate was doomed to be a snooze fest, the two-hour political bar brawl disabused them of that notion.
The first Republican National Committee debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee proved to be a tinder box for the slate of candidates trailing former President Donald Trump by as much as 40 percentage points or more. And the rhetorical explosions came fast and furious at times — even as the combatants didn’t invoke Trump’s name for the first hour of the debate.
And that’s where things really went boom!
Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked the eight Republicans who made the debate stage about the “elephant not in the room.” Trump opted to skip the debate and instead joined former Fox News host Tucker Carlson for a taped interview — that aired on X (formerly Twitter) during the live debate.
The question: Would the candidates sign the Republican Party pledge to support the eventual nominee if said nominee is Trump and he is convicted in any of the four criminal indictments against him? Baier wanted a show of hands. Many raised them, some reluctantly. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has campaigned in large part on his loathing of Trump, wasn’t among them.
“Here’s the bottom line. Someone has got to stop moralizing this conduct. Whether you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president,” Christie said to a mix of applause and boos. He took exception to his vocal critics in the crowd at Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
“You know what? This is the great thing about this country, booing is allowed but it doesn’t change the truth,” he said, eliciting more boos.
Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has seen his rising poll numbers move his campaign into third place among the crowded field, defended Trump.
“President Trump, I believe, was the best president of this 21st century,” he said to ringing applause among the thousands in attendance.
“And Chris Christie, honest to God, your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance,” Ramaswamy added.
Trump plans to appear in Fulton County (GA) Court on Thursday to answer charges in his latest 2020 election-related indictment.
Most agreed with the vast majority of Republican voters who believe the indictments against Trump are part of the greater weaponization of President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice and ally Democrat prosecutors against their political enemies.
“We keep seeing not only the weaponization of the DOJ against political opponents but parents who showed up at school board meetings and were called terrorists,” said U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who has polled in the top 3 in first nominating state Iowa.
The sparring and rhetorical fireworks started early and often, much of it between former Vice President Mike Pence and Ramaswamy and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Ramaswamy and Christie and Ramaswamy. In short, the candidate challenging Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for second place in the Republican presidential race, turned out to be the main target of attack on the incendiary debate stage.
Pence repeatedly hit Ramaswamy on his youth and political inexperience. The Ohio political outsider turned 38 this month, just three years older than the constitutional minimum age to serve as the nation’s chief executive. Ramaswamy has proudly proclaimed the fact that he is the first millennial Republican to run for president.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” said Pence, who entered the debate trailing Ramaswamy, DeSantis and Trump in RealClearPolitics’ latest average of Republican primary polls.
Ramaswamy said it’s time “someone from a different generation” lead America. He seemed to hit back hard after most rhetorical blows, at one point calling the “experienced” government officials on stage “Super PAC puppets.” The Ohio businessman is making his first foray into politics, starting at the top. His GOP nomination rivals didn’t care for his characterization of them as bought-and-paid-for stooges.
Surprising to pundits, DeSantis took very little fire from his opponents, perhaps a reflection of his faltering poll numbers early in the 2024 campaign season. DeSantis held center stage by virtue of his lead — shrinking as it has been — in the polls, but the Florida governor was mostly left alone. He hammered home his military service and his record as governor, particularly his re-election win by 20 percentage points in November.
His biggest applause line may have arrived when DeSantis blasted the lockdown policies that stripped Americans of their liberties during the pandemic. It was also a shot at Trump, again without mentioning the former president by name.
“You don’t take somebody like Fauci, and coddle him,” DeSantis said. “You bring Fauci in, you sit him down, and you say ‘Anthony, you are fired.’”
DeSantis has run in large part on his record of reopening Florida earlier than other states during COVID.
Haley, as she has often done on the campaign trail, laid a big portion of the massive U.S. debt in recent years at the feet of Trump and congressional Republicans who helped drive up the debt by nearly $8 trillion. Haley has failed to gain much traction in the national polls, with 3.2 percent support nationally, in fifth place just ahead of fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott.
“I don’t care about polls. No one is telling the American people the truth, and the truth is Joe Biden didn’t do that to us; Republicans did that to us, too,” Haley said to applause.
As the only woman on the debate stage, Haley scored some points when she took a direct shot at her male opponents.
“This is why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said ask a man, if you want something done ask a woman,’” she said to a mix of laughter and applause.
Haley and Pence sparred over pro-life values and the realities of a post-Roe v. Wade world in politics. Pence said a solid majority of Americans support a federal 15-week limit on abortions.
“But 70 percent of the Senate does not,” Haley interjected.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum may have won a moral victory by just showing up to the debate. The night before, he ended up in a Milwaukee emergency room after injuring himself in a pick-up basketball game. He hobbled on to the stage and joked about how he took the old theatrical good luck idiom of “break a leg” too far.
Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson mainly stuck to their talking points on rural and social conservative values. Hutchinson blasted Trump for his mounting legal issues.
More than any combatant, Pence stretched the debate clock to the point of breaking. Baier, on several occasions, scolded the former vice president for abusing the rule. He wasn’t the only abuser of the rule. Baier and fellow moderator and Fox News host Martha MacCallum, at multiple points, lost control of the debate as the candidates shouted over each other and refused to answer the questions asked.
While each camp declared victory Wednesday evening, Donald Trump Jr., working the spin room, said his father was the clear victor despite his absence. He said Ramaswamy did the best among the candidates on the stage. How about DeSantis, who has taken the brunt of the former president’s derision?
“He was like a deer in headlights,” Trump Jr. told The Star News Network.
– – –
M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “RNC Debate” by Fox News.