Mike Pence tangled with Ramaswamy. So did Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. DeSantis, still polling second to former President Donald Trump — but with his campaign floundering — was all but reduced to an afterthought, while Pence, Haley and Christie dominated the stage.
The debate may have reset the race a bit, but only for candidates not named Trump. Who came out the best? Who had a bad night? And did we even learn anything new?
We asked five POLITICO campaign reporters for their takeaways from the first Republican primary debate of 2024.
Who had the best night? Who had the worst night?
Natalie Allison: He took all the hits — seriously, almost all of them — but Vivek Ramaswamy got all he could have wanted out of tonight: attention and the opportunity to reinforce the idea the party’s establishment is out to get him. If you were a Republican who still hadn’t seen a clip of Ramaswamy on social media or TV, you learned who he was tonight. And the fact all knives were out for him shows that the other candidates see him not just as an annoyance, but as a threat right now as they’re trying to break through themselves.
Ron DeSantis’ team, for what it’s worth, was thrilled he wasn’t the one under fire (“didn’t get caught up in the infighting,” is what one of his campaign advisers noted to me afterward), following two months straight of negative headlines, disappointing polling and much more scrutiny and criticism than the rest of the field.
It wasn’t a particularly great night for Tim Scott. He made sure to talk about his childhood, mentioning as often as he could his hardworking single mother to explain how his family pulled themselves up from a difficult place. But none of his answers were that catchy. Recently, Scott has been viewed as someone in the running to overtake DeSantis for the No. 2 spot, but he will need to make more of an impression the next time he’s on stage.
Sally Goldenberg: Mike Pence had the best night. Pence — who has struggled to break out of the pack and was eviscerated by Tucker Carlson in a one-on-one interview this summer — showed more than a little fight with Ramaswamy. He distinguished himself with a clearly articulated foreign policy position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, courting traditional conservatives. He reminded viewers of his Christian faith, quoting from the Bible and appealing to anti-abortion groups with his support for a federal ban. Finally, he got the support of nearly every opponent on stage for his actions certifying the 2020 election, despite the violent reaction to his decision at the time.
Bottom-tier candidates Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum didn’t have the break-through moments they needed — and with the next debate rules setting higher polling thresholds, that may be the last time we see them on stage. Similarly, Tim Scott did not do enough to make a case for himself as the religious conservative in the race.
Steven Shepard: Given the stakes for his sputtering campaign, DeSantis had the best night. He was able to articulate his positions on the issues central to his candidacy. He didn’t face the ire of the others on stage the way Ramaswamy did.
Even when the moderators tried to stoke fights between some of the candidates and DeSantis, they mostly took a pass on punching up at the Florida governor, who was the top-polling candidate on the stage.
Wednesday night didn’t fix all of DeSantis’ problems. But if he does end up back on his feet, it will be a big reason why.
Look, Ramaswamy was the center of attention — and maybe attention is a good thing. But he was at it with a different volume and level of caffeination than everyone else, and the candidates who went after him landed some body blows, whether it was Pence calling him a “rookie” or Haley hitting him on Ukraine.
Adam Wren: Pence had a great night. He seemed to win the exchange over what is supposed to be his biggest weakness: His actions on Jan. 6. Christie, Scott and DeSantis all sided with Pence and his actions on that day. DeSantis tried to sidestep the question, but Pence brought him to heel. “There’s no more important duty,” Pence said. “So answer the question.” He is struggling in the polls, but he projected an adult-in-the-room presence that his campaign has been aiming at for months now.
Meanwhile, it seemed like Scott disappeared for stretches throughout the night. And Ramaswamy was clearly a bigger target for the field than DeSantis. That tells you a lot about how the rest of the field assesses the calculus of the race.
Holly Otterbein: All in all, it was a pretty good night for President Joe Biden. Most Republicans on stage raised their hands when asked if they would support Trump in the general election even if he was convicted. Several spoke in favor of a national abortion ban. Those are issues that play in a GOP primary. But they are vulnerabilities next November.
I’d also argue it was a fairly good night for Ramaswamy. Yes, he was attacked relentlessly, but those attacks mean a relatively unknown candidate polling in single digits got a ton of time to respond and spread his message.
The Fox News moderators, on the other hand, didn’t have a great night. They failed to get clear answers on some questions. Candidates often ignored when their time to speak was up. And at times, the audience’s cheers and boos overwhelmed the candidates’ responses.
What surprised you most during this debate?
Otterbein: Here’s the nice thing about a low bar: It’s easy to clear it. The narrative around DeSantis has been so atrocious for so long that it was kind of surprising that he didn’t choke tonight.
Sure, he did things to alienate swing voters (however hesitantly, he was among those who raised their hands when asked if they’d back a convicted Trump) and primary voters (he dodged a question about whether he’d support a six-week federal abortion ban).
But despite still being in second place in the GOP primary, he wasn’t attacked as much as other contenders. He seemed to get off pretty easily — a reflection, probably, of other presidential hopefuls seeing him as a candidate in decline.
Wren: The biggest surprise to me was Pence consistently lecturing Ramaswamy, 26 years his junior but ahead of him in the polls. The Hoosier, who is campaigning as the adult in the room, isn’t exactly known as an attack dog. But he clearly takes umbrage to the upstart from Indiana’s neighboring state of Ohio. Before the debate, Pence said of Ramaswamy’s comments that the government hadn’t told the full truth about 9/11, “I understand he was probably in grade school on 9/11, and I was on Capitol Hill.” He kept up that generational contrast throughout the night.
“We’re not looking for a new national identity,” Pence said to Ramaswamy. “The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hardworking people the world has ever known. We just need a government as good as our people.” Ramaswamy said it wasn’t “morning in America,” but added that we live in a “dark moment.”
I think Ramaswamy came off as a little too pugnacious in a way that didn’t always win over the room — or the audience at home. And yet, he also didn’t wilt under the lights of his first ever national debate.
Allison: Ron DeSantis went into this debate at his weakest point of his candidacy. But instead of using the opportunity to kick him while he’s down — to point their fire at the guy who just needs to come down a few more points to finally fall out of his solid second place position — the rest of the field just ignored him.
They went after Ramaswamy. They went after Pence. They went after Haley. Haley was even set up by the moderators to attack DeSantis about Ukraine (they referenced his “territorial dispute comments”), and she essentially dodged it.
At one point, DeSantis stood silently between Pence and Ramaswamy as the two shouted each other down about whether it’s actually morning in America. Either everyone was trying to keep the attention off the frontrunner of the debate stage, or they all assumed someone else would go after him — though based on my post-debate conversations tonight, it seems to have been the latter.
Goldenberg: DeSantis anticipated being the target of most of the fire, and he wasn’t. Even though he has steadily fallen in the polls since entering the race in May, he is still in second place. Yet the attacks were usually leveled at a political neophyte, Ramaswamy, who presented himself as the most Trump-adjacent candidate in Trump’s absence.
DeSantis’ team had fundraised off of the anticipated attacks, spinning them as proof of his strength as the only person who can take on Trump. So while it was beneficial for him to have uninterrupted time to share his biography and record, it did undermine that argument. One prominent DeSantis supporter, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, embraced the turn of events. “The governor was wise, if the arrows weren’t aimed at him, to just not jump in,” he said.
Shepard: I was most surprised that the other candidates saw little need to knock down DeSantis. Trump’s not there, so wouldn’t you go after the next person on the ladder?
Will anything we saw on stage hurt Donald Trump?
Otterbein: The fact that Republicans like Pence and Christie bashed Trump over his conduct on Jan. 6 gives permission to GOP voters and conservative-leaning independents to abandon the former president in the general election.
Wren: I think Holly is right. Every candidate who answered Martha MacCallum’s question about whether Pence was right on Jan. 6 backed the former vice president. That seemed to me to be a watershed moment in the race, and you have to wonder whether that quells some of the stormy waters Pence has been navigating.
Even DeSantis agreed that Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6 and that he had no “beef” with him. Did we see a turning point in the race over that issue? It seems like it.
Goldenberg: I understand that point, but I would argue the opposite. So little seems to impact Trump’s grip on the Republican Party. And the former president will easily persuade his loyal following that every candidate on stage who didn’t support him — basically everyone other than Ramaswamy — is disloyal. For those Republicans who are loosely supporting Trump but looking for an alternative, they may give these other candidates another look. However, there are many of them splitting that opposition, and the debate did not crystallize anyone as the sole alternative. That benefits Trump.
Allison: Has anything to date in this primary hurt Trump’s chances of winning the nomination? No, and nothing that happened tonight was particularly damaging for him either. There certainly is a risk that, after several of these debates with him not on stage, his dominance could fade a bit. But no one besides Christie (and to a lesser extent, Hutchinson) even tried to make a compelling case against him, and likely no one began to win over the hearts of Republican primary voters in the way that Trump has.
Shepard: Not debating was a risk for Trump, and it’s not a stance he’s going to be able to maintain forever. But he probably benefited by not being there Wednesday night — and only built anticipation for the first debate he finally attends, whenever it is.
How will this debate change the trajectory of the race?
Wren: Pence — on both abortion and Jan. 6 — got the better of the field. Does he get a second look from Iowa caucus-goers after this debate? I don’t know. But he put himself in contention for one.
Allison: I wouldn’t be surprised if tonight’s debate got Nikki Haley some new fans. She has struggled for five months now to gain traction or give people a clear sense of why she’s a better choice over Scott or DeSantis, for example. I think she was able to make an impression tonight by getting heated, at times, by sharply criticizing some of her opponents in the race, and by the mere fact she was the only woman on the stage (and the only person not wearing a dark suit and red tie).
But, to answer the question, Haley gaining a few points still wouldn’t change the trajectory of the race.
Shepard: There will be plenty of movement in the polls after this debate, but it’s going to be beneath Trump. Did the attacks do enough to arrest Ramaswamy’s rise, or will DeSantis reverse his decline?
Changes below Trump will help to clarify the field but do little to change the overriding dynamic of the race, which is: Donald Trump is the top choice of the majority of Republicans nationally and a still-commanding-but-smaller plurality of Republicans in the early states.
Goldenberg: I don’t think it changes anything much. Pence and Haley may get fundraising bumps. DeSantis can credibly claim he got his message across and probably convince his nervous donors that he’s still a viable alternative to Trump. But Trump is likely to remain the clear frontrunner.
Otterbein: We’ll see in the post-debate polls! But at the beginning of this debate, Trump was the frontrunner. And after this debate, I’m confident Trump remains the frontrunner.