So, did that change anything?
Ron DeSantis was weird and hostile. An extremely hyper Vivek Ramaswamy, after cribbing a quip from Barack Obama in his introduction, sold himself as a truth-telling outsider. Chris Christie threw jabs at Donald Trump, who Mike Pence—bland as ever—tried his best to differentiate himself from without running afoul of the MAGA faithful. And the low-pollers, including North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, fresh off a basketball injury, tried their best to have a moment that could catapult them out of the basement. There were surprises: Nikki Haley laid the blame on Republicans, not Democrats, over spending; Burgum, the first of the field to pull out his pocket Constitution, offered an almost measured answer on abortion, while his stage-mates like DeSantis ranted about so-called “post-birth” abortion (isn’t this just…murder?); and even the Fox News audience seemed to boo Ramaswamy for calling climate change a “hoax.” There were strong barbs, including Christie comparing Ramaswamy to ChatGPT. But the question after the first debate is the same as it was heading into it: Will any of this actually matter?
Trump—who snubbed the proceedings in favor of a sit-down with Tucker Carlson, telling the former Fox News host that it “doesn’t make sense” to indulge his lower polling competitors—entered the night with polling higher than the eight debaters combined. And while Milwaukee might have some impact on the order of candidates two through nine (as ABC News pointed out, Ramaswamy led in Google searches during the debate), it’s unclear any of these hopefuls did much to take the leader down a peg.
Trump’s absence, in some ways, allowed for a more issue-focused evening—we got talk of tax cuts and spending, Ukraine and China and the border, without the former president steamrolling anybody, as is his preferred debate tactic. But it also gave his acolytes, like DeSantis and Ramaswamy, most notably, room to do the steamrolling instead. “We’re not school children,” DeSantis said after hosts Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum asked for a show of hands of who, among the eight candidates, believe in climate change.
Some of them sure did act like it sometimes, though. Ramaswamy cast himself as the leader of a “cold cultural civil war” and seemed the distillation of the dangerous extremism of the Trump-era GOP. DeSantis suggested he would order a military invasion in Mexico “on day one" of his presidency. And Tim Scott, a non-factor all night, kept trying to stand between the playground bullies by saying, Can’t we all just get along?
On one matter, most did: “If former President Trump is legally convicted, would you continue to endorse him as your party’s candidate?”
All but Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, and Christie, the most viable of the anti-Trump candidates, said yes. That includes Pence, who Trump supporters wanted to hang on January 6 for declining to help him overturn his loss to Joe Biden, and DeSantis, who seemed to look around to see what his fellow rivals would do before raising his hand.
Hutchinson drew boos for suggesting Trump shouldn’t be allowed to run in the first place. Christie did, too, for saying that Trump—the man he once supported—was “beneath the office of the president of the United States.”
“Booing is allowed,” he told the Fox News audience, “but it doesn’t change the truth.”
Sure, but nothing so far has indicated that the the truth can convince the Republican base.
This is, at the end of the day, a contest between Trump and Anybody Else. If this debate was about anything, it was who would step up to fill that role. For all their punch throwing—Pence, answering a question about Biden’s age, taking an apparent swipe at Ramaswamy for being “too young”—the candidates mostly just seemed too uniform, too preoccupied with “wokeness” and other far-right inanities to differentiate themselves from the other Trump Lites. And when Christie did break from the party line, particularly on Trump, he was hit with jeers from the crowd. The goal, for the eight candidates Wednesday, was to change the dynamic of the race. It’s hard to say with much confidence that any did—at least not in the one way that matters. “It’s a little harsh to say,” former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus told Sean Hannity in a post-debate breakdown Wednesday. “It looked a little bit as an under-card debate…not having the prize-fighter, not having Donald Trump on that stage.”