The initial Republican debate was a boisterous event that witnessed all eight candidates diving headfirst into spirited exchanges. Some had speculated that the absence of Donald Trump, the ultimate showman, might make it a dull affair, but that prediction proved decisively wrong. While the former president had been the center of attention during primary debates in 2016, the eight contenders who convened in Wisconsin demonstrated their ability to generate excitement without his presence.
However, a few candidates managed to distinguish themselves from the rest, while others seemed to fade into the background. The winners and losers are broken out as follows:
- Vivek Ramaswamy: Despite never having held public office and not having voted for a president between 2004 and 2020, Ramaswamy dominated the Republican debate. With a wide smile and a sharp wit, he appeared to be the only candidate genuinely enjoying himself. This may be due in part to his status as a political newcomer who has surpassed expectations, essentially playing with house money while taking center stage. He adeptly parried attacks from his fellow candidates, positioning himself as the outsider against a group of political insiders. Many of his views, such as advocating for Ukraine to cede territory to Russia and using military force to secure the US-Mexico border, are outside the Republican mainstream, but his ability to generate attention was reminiscent of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
- Mike Pence: A seasoned politician with experience as a congressman, governor, and vice-president, Pence showed that he still had some fight left in him. Although his presidential campaign had been struggling and polarizing, his debate experience served him well. He launched early attacks, particularly criticizing Ramaswamy’s inexperience. Pence’s passionate call for nationwide abortion limits may not resonate well in the general election but could win over evangelical Republicans in key states.
- Nikki Haley: The former US ambassador to the UN, known for consistently outperforming expectations, stood out by offering early and sharp criticism of both Trump and the Republican Party. She emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility and labeled Trump as the “most disliked politician in America.” Haley’s willingness to engage in debates on issues like US aid to Ukraine and abortion showcased her fighting spirit. Even if she doesn’t emerge as the frontrunner this time, her debate performance could position her for future presidential bids.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK:
- Tim Scott and Chris Christie: Chris Christie did exactly what was expected of him—taking swipes at Trump, targeting Ramaswamy, and displaying a feisty and combative demeanor. Tim Scott’s more reserved approach meant he often stayed above the fray during heated moments, potentially burnishing his credentials for a vice-presidential role in a Trump ticket.
- Ron DeSantis: Once seen as a strong contender alongside Trump, DeSantis appeared to have lost ground in the polls. While his performance wasn’t terrible, he failed to make a significant impact during key moments of the debate, with Ramaswamy outshining him and other candidates elbowing their way to the forefront on various issues.
- Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum: Hutchinson, the last candidate to qualify for the debate, offered criticisms of Trump that seemed weak compared to Christie’s more pointed attacks. Burgum, who secured a spot on the stage through a gimmick, failed to stand out with his small-state conservatism. Both candidates needed a stronger showing to bolster their chances of future debate appearances, especially as qualification standards become more rigorous.
The Milwaukee debate marked the start of a contentious and unpredictable Republican primary season. With a diverse field of candidates and shifting dynamics, the path to securing the nomination promises to be a rollercoaster ride filled with surprises and challenges. Each contender must adeptly navigate the evolving landscape and appeal to the various factions within the party to emerge victorious. As the primary season unfolds, the outcomes of this debate will continue to shape the narrative of the Republican presidential race.