Aid to Ukraine, abortion rights, and former US President Donald Trump’s legal troubles: Eight Republican presidential hopefuls have clashed over a range of issues in the first debate of the 2024 United States election season.
The candidates took the stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday night, hoping to chip away at Trump’s commanding lead in the race for the GOP nomination.
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With the ex-president skipping the event – and instead sitting down for an interview with conservative host Tucker Carlson – the debate presented an opportunity for Trump’s challengers to try to appeal to millions of voters.
But Trump nevertheless “was a big presence even though he wasn’t in the room”, Niambi Carter, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.
The White House hopefuls criticised US President Joe Biden’s record and had heated exchanges over foreign policy, including US aid to Ukraine, and domestic issues ranging from public safety and abortion to education and the American economy.
Here are five key takeaways from the first Republican debate:
Political novice stands out
Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur with no previous political experience, has been gaining popularity in the GOP nomination race by branding himself as a Trump-like outsider to politics.
And he made his presence known during the debate, getting into several heated exchanges with his fellow Republicans.
Ramaswamy clashed with former US Vice President Mike Pence in the first head-to-head confrontation of the evening. “Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence said, calling Ramaswamy a “rookie”.
Ramaswamy hit back by slamming what he called “professional politicians” and “super PAC puppets” – a reference to so-called Political Action Committees that contribute funding to various political campaigns in the US.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also hit out at Ramaswamy after the candidate said he believed “the climate change agenda is a hoax”. “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said.
Ramaswamy has pledged to cut down on government bureaucracy if elected, saying he would shut down the “administrative state” and eliminate the FBI by moving the bureau’s law enforcement agents into other government departments.
In his opening comments of the debate, he said: “First, let me just address a question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight: Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage?
He added later that “it’s going to take an outsider” to lead the Republican Party.
Trump’s legal troubles
The candidates also clashed over the ongoing criminal cases against Trump – and their support for the former president.
Trump faces four separate indictments – on election interference charges, allegations he mishandled secret government documents, and a hush money payment to a porn star – and his legal troubles have loomed large over the Republican nomination contest.
“Someone’s got to stop normalising this conduct,” Christie, a staunch Trump critic, said during the debate in reference to the ex-president’s behaviour.
That drew a response from Ramaswamy, who accused Christie of running a campaign of “vengeance and grievance” against Trump.
Later in the debate, all but two candidates – Christie and Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas – said they would still support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he is found guilty in the criminal cases against him.
Ramaswamy went even further, pledging to pardon Trump if he is elected president and calling on others to join him in making the same promise.
Criticism of Biden, Democrats
Unsurprisingly, many of the candidates hit out against Biden and his administration’s policies.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely considered to be Trump’s main challenger in the race for the Republican nomination, said the country is “in decline” as a result of Biden’s economic policies.
“This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline,” said DeSantis, who also pledged to lower gas prices and increase US energy production if elected.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum also blamed public anger over soaring inflation on Biden. “Our economy is being crushed by Biden’s energy policies, which are raising the cost of every product you buy, not just the gasoline at the pump,” Burgum said.
Other GOP candidates also slammed Democratic Party officials on various issues, including public safety and immigration.
“Democrats have been talking about defunding the police for the last five years, and we ought to be funding law enforcement, particularly in our major cities,” Pence said.
Since the US Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last year, the issue has been a political Achilles heel for Republicans. Public opinion polls and election contests have shown that most Americans oppose further restrictions on reproductive rights.
Still, the Republican base continues to largely identify as opponents of abortion, which means the party’s candidates will face the challenging task of appealing to those supporters during the primaries without alienating the wider US electorate in 2024.
DeSantis, who has signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Florida as governor, dodged a question during the debate on whether he would push to ban the procedure at the federal level if elected.
“I understand Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to do it different, but I will support the cause of life as governor and as president,” he said.
Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, called for “consensus” on abortion, taking a more moderate stance than most of the rest of the Republican Party.
While she voiced opposition to late-term abortion, she said people should treat each other with respect over the issue.
“Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?” Haley said.
Aid to Ukraine
Foreign policy has been a major source of division in the GOP. The party is home to both hardline isolationists and staunch interventionists and that chasm has been on full display in recent months when it comes to US support for Ukraine.
During the debate, Ramaswamy argued against continuing US funding for Ukraine’s war efforts against the Russian invasion.
He said Washington should not spend resources fighting off an invasion across “somebody else’s border” instead of using the funds to protect the country’s own southern border – a reference to large numbers of asylum seekers arriving in search of protection.
Haley slammed Ramaswamy for his comments, accusing him of choosing Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she called “a murderer”, over a US ally.
Christie, the former New Jersey governor, also hit out against Ramaswamy, saying the US needs to stand against authoritarianism across the world.