One thing was clear when former President Donald Trump decided to skip the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary race: There would be a vacuum to fill.
But it was not Trump’s chief rival in the polls, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who emerged at the epicenter of the first Trump-free showdown Wednesday, but instead political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, whose unlikely rise has revealed the remarkable degree to which the former president has remade the party.
DeSantis had stumbled heading into the debate and was widely seen as in need of a stabilizing performance. He sought it by largely avoiding the scrum and sticking closely to the core case he makes on the stump, hoping to gain incremental ground in front of a national audience.
All eight candidates mostly jostled for position among themselves, and few targeted the front-runner who is set to surrender on Thursday after his fourth criminal indictment.
Here are seven takeaways.
It was the Ramaswamy show.
Six months ago, the idea that Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, would be standing center stage at a Republican presidential debate would have seemed unimaginable.
And yet there he was, leaning into that fact with a line echoing one used famously by Barack Obama, asking, “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?”
That skinny guy quickly became a punching bag for rivals, led by former Vice President Mike Pence, who invoked his experience to say that it wasn’t time for a “rookie” who needed “on-the-job training.” Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey recalled the Obama line, quipping, “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”
But Ramaswamy smiled his way through the night, delighting in the attention as he staked out positions that might be unpopular among his competitors — cutting funding for Ukraine’s war effort (he mocked the country’s president as “their pope”), and promising to preemptively pardon Trump — but that resonate with the Republican base.
He hewed closely to Trump not just on substance but also on style. He stirred controversy to soak up screen time, and lobbed some of the evening’s most strikingly personal slights: accusing Christie of auditioning for an MSNBC contract, Nikki Haley of having her eye on lucrative private-sector jobs and declaring — to some boos — that he was the only candidate not bought and paid for by special interests.
The Harvard-educated Ramaswamy came off at times as slick — Christie dismissed him as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” — but he was the one everyone else was talking about, a victory in itself.
DeSantis avoided attacks — and ended up on the periphery.
Before the debate, DeSantis’ aides had predicted that he would be the center of attacks. So much for that.
Rivals mostly ignored him, despite his status as the polling leader on the stage. It was a surprising turn of events that allowed DeSantis to make his own points without interruption or interrogation.
But it often relegated him to the sidelines. He spoke for two minutes less than Pence, only the fourth most speaking time of the eight candidates — hardly the expected outcome without Trump.
In fact, the moment when DeSantis most exerted his authority came against Fox News’s moderators, when he successfully steamrollered an attempt to have candidates raise their hands over whether they believed in human-caused climate change.
It felt like something of a fleeting alpha moment for a candidate in need of one.
But it was his hesitancy at another hand-raising question that captured one of the central conundrums of his candidacy: how to position himself versus Trump. When the moderators asked who would support Trump even if he were convicted in his criminal cases, DeSantis appeared to pause as each of the four candidates to his left, one by one, raised their hands before he did.
He did cite his biography in ways some advisers have wanted, unfurling a rare personal anecdote about seeing “the sonograms of all three of my kids” as he explained why he had signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida. But some core DeSantis lines were conspicuously absent: He did not talk about Disney or invoke his war on “woke.”
Policy clashes showed GOP divides.
More than any other issue, the question of America’s role in Ukraine divided the candidates and presented two divergent visions for the Republican Party.
On one side stood the Reaganite interventionists, Haley and Pence. They argued for an America that should stand for freedom and against President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
On the other side stood DeSantis and Ramaswamy, who questioned whether supporting Ukraine was in America’s national interest. Ramaswamy was unequivocal: America should no longer support Ukraine.
DeSantis left himself more wiggle room, leaving open sending more U.S. aid to Ukraine, but saying European countries needed to chip in more.
Democrats watching the debate — including President Joe Biden — immediately seized on the Republican answers on climate change. When the candidates were asked if they believed human behavior was causing climate change, most seemed to want nothing to do with the question.
Only two were unequivocal: Ramaswamy, who called climate change a “hoax,” and Haley, who said climate change was “real.” DeSantis rejected a request by the moderators for a show of hands, saying: “We are not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate.”
On abortion, the main debate was over whether it should be banned federally or at the state level. Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who had a quiet night, argued for a national 15-week ban. Haley argued that a national ban was politically impractical. DeSantis indicated the issue should be left to the states.
Pence came out punching.
Pence barely qualified for the debate, but he made the most of every moment, crowbarring his way into almost every exchange, regardless of whether his name had been mentioned. He was so surprisingly aggressive that Bret Baier, one of the moderators, repeatedly urged him to stick to his allotted time.
Pence staked out the most anti-abortion position, arguing for a 15-week national ban and chiding his opponents who ducked the question — suggesting they were acting out of political expediency rather than morality. “Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he told Haley. More than once, he made a more assertive case than Scott did on issues prized by evangelical voters, whom the two men are competing over.
But Pence saved his sharpest attacks for Ramaswamy. His disdain for the young entrepreneur recalled the visceral contempt Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota displayed for the cocky young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, during the 2020 Democratic primary debates.
“I was a House conservative leader before it was cool,” Pence said at one point.
But running as the experienced hand has been a tough sell in Republican primaries in recent years.
Haley positioned herself as the pragmatist.
There is little evidence in the Trumpian Republican Party that a moderate voice can succeed in presidential primaries. But during the debate, Haley seemed determined to try to do just that.
Instead of tacking right, Haley offered the closest thing to a general-election argument that any candidate delivered, highlighting herself as the only woman present.
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” she said — a canned rendition of a Margaret Thatcher line, but one that landed.
At another point, Haley, a former United Nations ambassador under Trump, turned some of her fire on her own party about the country’s national debt.
“The truth isn’t that Biden did this to us, our Republicans did this to us, too,” Haley said.
Her most aggressive moments came during an intense back-and-forth with Ramaswamy about Ukraine aid. She came charging at him: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Fox News panned out to show the crowd cheering.
Boos underscored Christie’s challenge.
On a crowded, chaotic debate stage — which has often been Christie’s best format — he did not stand out as he has in the past.
Running for president a second time, he generally accomplished what he set out to do: Argue that Trump, whom he once supported, has engaged in conduct unfit for a president.
The problem for Christie was that he was booed lustily by the crowd nearly every time he leveled those criticisms. And his attacks came less frequently than many political watchers had anticipated. He let some opportunities to swing at Trump go by, especially in the first hour.
Ramaswamy also got the last word in a contentious exchange, reminding the Republican primary audience that Christie had embraced Obama during hurricane recovery efforts in New Jersey in 2012. That hug has angered Republican voters ever since.
When, in the second hour, Christie found a groove against Trump, the audience repeatedly drowned him out, a fact that Trump’s social media site, Truth Social, took note of with an alert to users.
It all underscored the difficulty of Christie’s task.
Trump avoided the debate, and meaningful attacks.
All eight Republicans onstage had to sign a pledge that they would support the party’s eventual nominee — even if it ends up being the man who skipped the debate and in doing so refused to make such a promise himself.
Throughout the night, Trump was something of spectral presence — not there, yet omnipresent.
While Christie and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas criticized him from the wings of the stage, no one fully took advantage of the front-runner’s absence.
“I’m incredibly proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration,” Pence said at one point. Ramaswamy called Trump the greatest president this century.
Most candidates stood with Pence for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he stood up to Trump’s pressure to overturn the 2020 election. But few leaned into the topic. “We’ve answered this so many times,” DeSantis protested, before eventually relenting. “Mike did his duty; I’ve got no beef with him.”
It all amounted to a relatively warm embrace for the candidate running laps around them in polls, and an evening that seemed unlikely to upset the status quo in a race that Trump has dominated.