Imagine a world in which Donald Trump decided not to run again for reelection.
That’s what the audience experienced for about the first 50 minutes of the first Republican presidential primary debate. There had been only fleeting, subtle swipes at Trump in that time. A debate instead broke out on the economy, abortion, crime and, in theory but not really, on climate change.
And you would have thought some guy named Vivek Ramaswamy was the frontrunner for the nomination. But then the viewing audience was reminded of reality when moderator Bret Baier of Fox News Channel noted the next segment was going to be about “the elephant not in the room” – to the dismay of the Trump-adoring, and loudly booing, audience.
“Let’s get through this,” Baier implored the audience, turning around to plead with them to quiet down.
How did it all turn out and who stood out and didn’t? Here are five takeaways:
1. Trump won’t likely be hurt by not showing up, but the potential risk was highlighted.
Surprisingly, perhaps, almost all the candidates stood up for former Vice President Mike Pence and said he did the right thing on Jan. 6 in his ceremonial role in counting and recording the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Pence noted that Trump asked him to reject the votes and “asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution.”
You can imagine that portion of the debate would have gone very differently if Trump was on that stage. The fact that everyone said Pence did the right thing, except Ramaswamy, really has to make Trump seethe, but the fact that the candidates felt like they could also says something.
Trump has a deep well of support among the GOP base and has huge leads in the polls. He likely won’t suffer from not being at this debate, but his pride may have just a little in that moment. It’s why there’s probably a higher likelihood after this debate than before it that Trump shows up to the next one. But anything’s possible with Trump.
2. We have to talk about Ramaswamy.
Who would have thought that at the beginning of this primary campaign that after the first GOP primary debate we’d be talking about a previously little-known former tech CEO, who wrote books about “woke” corporate culture.
He’s been seen as somewhat of a gadfly, but Ramaswamy has gotten tons of attention and landed himself smack dab in the middle of the debate stage Wednesday night. He commanded attention during the debate as well. He was supremely confident and in the middle of the most heated exchanges.
Watching him, though, it was like watching the rise and metaphoric fall of a campaign in one night. At first, his fast-talking style dominated, but he was grating on the other candidates, and he was on his heels, especially on foreign policy.
“You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” former Trump U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley fired at Ramaswamy for his position on the war in Ukraine. She added for punctuation, “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows. It shows.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, at one point, blasted him this way: “I’ve had enough of a guy who sounds like chatGPT.”
There is something to that. He did come across like a personification and channeling of the young, right-wing social media posters and podcasters – lots of opinions, but little experience in actually handling the things they’re professing expertise about.
3. Most of candidates embraced a pre-Trump “peace through strength” GOP position on foreign policy, but that’s not the heart of the party right now.
Yes, Haley and Pence got in their shots on Ramaswamy when it came to the Ukraine-Russia war. It was one of the strongest exchanges of the night for Pence before Haley stole his thunder.
But saying that most of the candidates on this particular stage agreed on a traditional GOP foreign policy, where the U.S. is the moral leader in the world, ignores that the top-three polling candidates in this primary – Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ramaswamy – feel differently.
And that matters. They are channeling many in the base. There’s a clear generational divide in this GOP, especially on foreign policy. Trump has pushed this more isolationist, non-interventionist foreign policy, and it’s changed the Republican Party in many ways.
Ramaswamy is an eager disciple, and it’s a stance that many younger Republicans, who came of age after 9/11 or with little memory of it, echo. They simply don’t see the United States as needing to be the moral leader overseas the way the country did for decades after World War Two.
4. DeSantis faded into the background, and Haley sounded like an adult and serious candidate.
Judging solely on speaking time, how he answered questions and the lack of attacks on him, you would never know that DeSantis was the top polling candidate on this stage.
His campaign has been sputtering to this point. Wednesday night was an opportunity to shine out of the shadow of Trump, but instead DeSantis came off as wooden, practiced and awkward. He didn’t command the stage the way many Republicans – and powerful donors – might have hoped or expected.
On the other hand, Haley showed some humanity on the issue of abortion and forcefulness on foreign policy. But her campaign has not taken off to this point. She has lagged behind in fundraising and hasn’t gained tons of attention since the first few weeks of her campaign.
Despite a strong performance, she will likely still have a difficult time getting the nomination because she seems out of step with the pro-Trump wing of the party. She has to hope that the big donors who thought DeSantis would be the principal alternative to Trump abandon him and go to her.
5. The Trump counter programming didn’t seem to work this time.
For once in eight years of GOP politics, Trump didn’t command the spotlight.
He thought he was delivering a two-for-one jab with his interview with Tucker Carlson – one in the direction of Fox News since Carlson is no longer with the network, and one at the party establishment.
But Trump’s pre-recorded interview with Carlson on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, didn’t quite get him the attention that his veterans “fundraiser” did in 2016 when he skipped another Fox News debate.
It was hardly the split-screen moment he was hoping for.
There was other counterprogramming, or more accurately trolling, going on around the debate – and that was from the Democrats. Pro-Biden ads ran on Fox News before the debate, and, on the ground in Milwaukee, the Democratic National Committee was driving around billboards, leaning into “Dark Brandon,” a caricature of Biden with lasers coming out of his eyes that started as a conservative, anti-Biden meme.
The billboards were leaning into not cutting Social Security, opposing tax cuts for the rich, lowering prescription drug costs and restoring Roe – all solid general-election positions, while GOP candidates, for the most part, are positioning themselves to the right to win a primary.