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Scorecard: Grading the debate performance of the Republican candidates

Highlights from the first Republican presidential debate
Highlights from the first Republican presidential debate (Fox News).

There were 17 Republican presidential candidates the first time Donald Trump ran for the presidency in 2016. It was the largest field in years and it would have been chaos if they all appeared on the same debate stage.

So someone came up with the idea for two debates: A main primetime debate featuring the top 10 candidates in the polls. A debate earlier in the day, dubbed the JV debate, would feature everyone else.

In 2024, there are 13 major candidates and only nine qualified for the first debate, based on polling and fund-raising benchmarks. Only eight were there, with former president and current front-runner Trump electing to skip the proceedings for an interview with Tucker Carlson.


So there was only one debate, and without Trump, it might as well have been a JV debate. While the debate contained some fiery moments, it was really a race for third place.

The stage featured governors, a US senator, and a former vice president, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis may not have been wrong when he quipped beforehand that he was the only one, “not running to be vice president, I’m not running to be in the Cabinet, and I’m not running to be a contributor on cable news.”

With that as the background, we come to the grades. They are based on two factors: First, the individual performance of the candidates. Second, whether the candidates did what they needed to do given the state of their campaigns. For example, despite polling above others, DeSantis needs to stop his recent downward slide. Others, like North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, need to demonstrate they aren’t just random candidates who somehow made the stage using a gift card gimmick. (For background, here’s my preview of what each candidate needed to accomplish Wednesday night.) Here are the grades:


Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Grade: B

DeSantis needed a big night to turn around his sagging campaign. He didn’t have one. At the same time, this could have been a very rough night. A gaffe or series of attacks could have further wounded his struggling campaign. That didn’t happen, either.

DeSantis was largely overshadowed in this debate, but he will emerge still in second place.

His performance was fine. But it wasn’t a disaster and he will have more time to turn his campaign around.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley

Grade: C+

Haley did the basics: She introduced herself and staked out her moments. She will no doubt use clips on Ukraine and women’s sports to raise money.

But for good chunks of the debate she was totally forgotten. At a time when many Republican voters are actually wondering who else is out there, Haley didn’t emerge as an option.

US Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina

Grade: D

No one was a bigger disappointment than Scott. This could’ve been a big moment for him. Each candidate was only going to be given about 12 minutes to make their case. That was enough time for Scott to weave his incredible personal story, one that is connecting in early primary states, through the policy-based questions from the moderators.

He didn’t do that, and as a result it was a missed opportunity. That said, he has the backing of one of the richest people in the world in Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, who has helped fund millions of dollars worth of ads. So he’s not out of it yet.


North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum

Grade: D

Simply put, Burgum offered nothing. That’s a problem. He needed people to be interested in him. Despite addressing issues like crime and even breaking out his pocket Constitution during an extended discussion over abortion, Burgum didn’t make an interesting case to voters. Indeed, the most interesting thing about him was that he almost didn’t appear in the debate after suffering an injury playing basketball.

Will Burgum make the second debate? Not from this performance.

Former vice president Mike Pence

Grade: A+

There are a number of items that observers probably didn’t have on their bingo cards for this debate. They may not have expected the first question to reference a folk song or the second question on a Fox News debate to be about climate change. They may not have anticipated that the first audience “boo” in the debate would be toward businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. They likely didn’t envision Asa Hutchinson — or anyone else — to tout being a member of George W. Bush’s administration.

Another thing they may not have foreseen was that Pence would emerge as the the star of the first Republican debate. Indeed, it was incredible that the person being defended the most on the stage wasn’t Trump, but Pence.

Pence was aggressive from the get-go. He deployed a primary debate strategy of directly engaging an opponent, both to create a foil and to guarantee more air time.


The bit worked. And Pence did it by playing directly to Iowa’s evangelical base, which controls the state’s caucuses, a must-win for Pence to go anywhere in 2024.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie

Grade: B+

From the day Christie announced his candidacy, he told audiences to watch for him on the debate stage, especially with Trump. Of course, Trump was not on stage. And in the opening of the debate, Christie was also overshadowed by Pence’s aggressiveness.

But Christie quickly emerged as a player. Importantly, he told a story of his time as governor of New Jersey and made his campaign about more than being a one-trick pony to take out Trump. Was it a breakout performance? No. Did he appear more substantive on a range of issues than nearly everyone else? Yes.

Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson

Grade: D

Former US senator Chris Dodd attended debates during his 2008 presidential run. He was fine. Many of his references were a decade old and he inspired no one. Still, he was a longtime public servant who belonged on a stage.

That was just like Hutchinson in Wednesday night’s debate. His resume is long. He is an old-school conservative. He also was an afterthought.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy of Ohio

Grade: B

As Ramaswamy tells it, just a few months ago he was at 0.0 percent in the polls and suddenly he has surged into third place. This is true.


His momentum (and, OK, maybe his inexperience in politics) made him the number one target in the first presidential debate. It felt like more time was spent discussing his statements than discussing either Trump or DeSantis, which itself is pretty remarkable.

It’s simply too early to know how Republican voters felt about Ramaswamy. He was at times rude and out of his depth. At the same time, he said what many in the GOP base wanted to hear, from criticizing America’s role in Ukraine to criticizing some of the anti-Trump figures standing at the adjacent podiums.

Bottom line: It was rough out there for Ramaswamy, but if people left the debate simply talking about him then that is a good night for a 38-year-old entrepreneur who has never run for any office before.

Former president Donald Trump

Grade: C-

The reporting inside Trump’s world suggests the decision to skip this debate was simply a risk-versus-reward calculation.

Trump and his team saw a lot of risk if he participated — he’d be the subject of attacks or he would say something that would put him in hot water. And as for upside, well, he is up 40 points on the field, a lead that is growing. He likely thought he had little to gain.

But Trump may regret that he didn’t participate. Except for the 13 minutes after the first hour when candidates fielded a question about him, Trump was largely a non-factor. Few fully defended him on politics or policy.

The reason he didn’t get a worse letter grade? Even after all of that, he likely didn’t lose a single point in his lead.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.