Review: the first 2023 Republican presidential primary debate

Republican contenders gathered on the debate stage last night for the first time since March of 2016 with the hopes of becoming the party’s next nominee for president of the United States.

Such debates often include a rare glimpse into the divisions that exist within the major political parties, as nominees bring out their figurative knives to cut through the other candidates for a chance at the top spot.

However, they also offer a chance for iron to sharpen iron, as presidential candidates are able to define themselves and their message to the American people. 

The debate on Wednesday was surprising. Not because the candidates traded barbs (as some of their attacks were even published beforehand), but because there was substantive debate. Several candidates went out of their way to differentiate themselves on their policy positions, not just their “style” on the Establishment-to-Trump spectrum.

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With all that being said, here are the winners, the losers, and the folks that were just kind of  “there.”

Losers

Asa Hutchinson

Courtesy of KARK

Former Arkansas Republican Governor Hutchinson has been a very minor figure in the race so far, and continued to be Wednesday night. Clearly running in the “Anti-Trump” lane, he was the only candidate besides former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie to not pledge to support former President Trump if he is the nominee. 

Unlike Christie though, Hutchinson does not have much traction even within the Anti-Trump lane. The showcasing of other Anti-Trump or adjacent candidates is likely to draw support from Gov. Hutchinson as he is less able to participate in the on-stage horse race and show himself as a fighter able to champion Anti-Trump primary voters.

Courtesy of FOX News

Doug Burgum

Governor Burgum of North Dakota was mostly unremarkable. After Gov. Hutchinson, he had the least speaking time. Unlike Gov. Hutchinson, nothing he said had enough punch to make a lasting impression. Burgum leaned into pro-rural rhetoric, but whether such messaging will land in a debate focused on pre-Trump and post-Trump conservatism is doubtful. 

The most memorable part of Burgum’s performance was his acknowledgement of injuring his leg on Tuesday.

Environmentalist Republicans

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

One of the early questions during the debate was by a Republican student who asked the candidates how they would ease young voters’ worries that Republicans do not take climate change seriously. 

Most of the candidates immediately went on the attack. At the most extreme was Vivek Ramaswamey, who called climate change a “hoax.” The “softer” approach was exemplified by Senator Tim Scott who criticized the idea of restricting the United States’ energy sources and use while nations such as China continue to pollute to grow their economies. 

No candidate addressed the original question.

The Word “Woke”

Courtesy of Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP

For the Republican buzzword of the last few years, the term was used barely if at all. Both Florida Governor Ron Desantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamey, candidates who launched their campaigns on the premise of being “anti-woke,” embraced other messaging styles. 

Ramaswamey leaned into more standard Trump-esque rhetoric, attacking establishment Republicans and liberal policies that economically harm the working class. 

Governor Desantis, meanwhile, talked about his record in Florida by focusing on his handling of COVID-19 and law-and-order issues rather than his high-profile battles with The Walt Disney Company. The culture war continues, but the word “woke” may be a casualty.

Donald Trump

Courtesy of NBC News

Make no mistake, former President Trump still has a high chance of being the nominee. Conventional wisdom among pundits before the debate begrudgingly accepted that he made the strategically correct decision by not opening himself up to attack on the debate stage. 

However, his interview with former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson was not the big event many were expecting and, so far, does not appear to have overshadowed the Republican Debate. By refusing to attend, Trump inadvertently made himself less central to the discussion than he otherwise would have been. 

By not taking up the spotlight for himself, Trump may have allowed other candidates to further define themselves and present to voters something they have not been able to fully picture, a post-Trump Republican Party. Whether Republicans choose to fully open that door or not, it is at least cracked.

Also There

Mike Pence

 Courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former Vice President Pence, while livelier and more combative than usual, seemed like an almost tragic figure. While still respected and admired by many Hoosiers, he has the air of a man whose time has passed. 

Pence came out strong, pushing back against the unapologetically pro-Trump Vivek Ramaswamey through the debate and successfully redirecting the conversation to force his rivals to take a stance on his own conduct on January 6th. While Pence managed to gain praise from the other candidates, he still has baggage from that day that makes it difficult for him to move on and define himself by other means. 

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Pence found a strong defender in Chris Christie who offered an impassioned defense of Pence’s actions. Christie’s monologue though, felt more like a eulogy than anything, with Pence standing soberly next to him looking on. 

Overall, Pence’s strong performance and the ceiling of support imposed on him by his opposition to Trump probably make the debate a wash for him.

Tim Scott

Courtesy of FOX News

As usual, Sen. Tim Scott made himself unobjectionable to pretty much everyone in the room. Unfortunately for him though, that means he had less opportunity to engage than some of his rivals. 

While generally considered on the “establishment” end of the Republican spectrum, Scott has not attempted to take up the “Anti-Trump” mantle the way Gov. Christie and former Ambassador Haley have. 

Rather than defining himself on the Trump question, Scott leaned into his staunch pro-life policies. He and Vice President Pence argued strongly for restrictions on abortion at the federal level that other candidates distanced themselves from. 

If not for Pence’s strong showing, Scott would likely have drawn away some of his support. 

As for Pence, the debate was probably a wash for Scott.

Chris Christie

Courtesy of Morry Gash/AP

Before Trump announced he was not coming to the debate, there was much anticipation in political circles of former Gov. Chris Christie unleashing a broadside attack on him from the podium. Instead, that energy was channeled into sparring with Ramaswamey and defending Mike Pence. 

Christie managed to bring the spotlight to himself with this aggressive posture, but whether this will help him pick up supporters from the other Anti-Trump candidates remains to be seen. 

The praise of Mike Pence, which Christie helped lead, probably insulates the former Vice President from leaking support to Christie. Likewise, by getting down in the mud with Ramaswamey, Christie may have alienated parts of the Anti-Trump coalition who want a less bombastic leader after the Trump years. 

If there is any affect here, it is probably for some limited Christie support to shift to Nikki Haley.

Ron DeSantis

The current narrative among some commentators is that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ campaign is in decline. From leading Trump in some polls months ago, he has fallen far and attracted challengers for the position of “alternative” Trump. Given this, anything other than an overwhelming victory in the debate is at best a draw for Desantis. Unfortunately for him, it looks like a draw is what happened. 

Desantis had strong moments, both touting his own record in Florida and sparring with the moderators, but also did not control the stage near as much as necessary to threaten Trump. 

Instead, Ramaswamey drew fire from the “establishment” candidates, reinforcing his image as the leading candidate in the pro-Trump lane (other than Trump himself of course). 

This is a net loss for Desantis, whose campaign strategy relies on building a coalition of pro-Trump and Trump-skeptical voters. Desantis is exactly where he was Tuesday, though his trajectory may have leveled out.

Winners

Nikki Haley

Courtesy of CNBC

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley had a strong showing. Haley kept herself in the fight by pushing back against Ramaswamey, appeasing Anti-Trumpers, and to a lesser extent against Pence, positioning herself for the general election by making herself look more moderate. 

Haley played up her foreign policy credentials, attacking the anti-interventionist views of the pro-Trump wing of the party as represented by Ramaswamey. She made a strong case that will further attract neoconservative primary voters to her campaign. 

By focusing her attacks on Ramaswamey and other candidates when they fought each other, she attempted to play the “adult in the room,” which could earn her votes from current Christie supporters. 

Her opposition to an extensive federal abortion ban on practical and strategic grounds differentiated her from Pence and Scott, but in a way that is less likely to alienate staunch pro-lifers. 

By combining the decorum of Pence and the moderate posture of Christie, Haley is positioning herself to consolidate the Anti-Trump vote. While Pence and Christie have likely reached the limits of their support, Haley (who has struggled to gain traction) has lots of room for growth.

Vivek Ramaswamy

Courtesy of Win McNamee/Getty Images

Businessman and author Vivek Ramaswamey was in his element in Milwaukee. Going on the offense in the media is one of his strengths. After Pence, who was the subject of multiple debate questions and thus was given additional response time, Ramaswamey had the most speaking time during the debate. He used it expertly, attacking his opponents on stage as “bought and paid for.” Their indignation only fed his Trumpian aesthetic. 

While this will not endear Ramaswamey to Anti-Trump voters, they were likely never going to support him anyway. Even if he were to abandon the anti-establishment posture, his policy positions would drive away neoconservatives and moderates. 

From his climate change comments to demanding cutting military aid to Ukraine and Israel, Ramaswamey planted his America First flag in the ground. 

Only once has a media-savvy populist taken on an entire Republican debate stage the same way, during the 2016 primary.

Marcus Bridgeman was the founding Opinion Editor at The Collegiate Commons. In his own columns, he focused on issues of public policy and political philosophy. Bridgeman is a native Hoosier and a law student. 

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