Knives out for Ramaswamy in first GOP debate as candidates spar on Trump, Ukraine and climate

Former President Donald Trump, the front runner in the GOP presidential primary, did not participate in the debate, citing his polling lead.

Published: August 23, 2023 8:52pm

Updated: August 24, 2023 10:16am

Candidates had their knives out for tech mogul Vivek Ramaswamy on Wednesday night in the first Republican presidential primary debate, with his fellow candidates throwing jabs over his lack of political experience, his stance on Ukraine and his support for pardoning former President Donald Trump, if elected.

Eight Republican candidates took the stage in Milwaukee, seeking to win over voters on the road to securing the party nomination for president in 2024.

The eight qualifying candidates were Ramaswamy, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Former President Donald Trump, the front runner in the contest, did not attend, citing his polling lead. He previously expressed concerns about a Republican National Committee requirement that candidates pledge to support the eventual nominee in order to appear on the stage.

Pence digs at Vivek's lack of experience

Pence took the first swipe at Ramaswamy pertaining to his lack of political experience.

The first question for each candidate referred to Oliver Anthony's recent smash hit "Rich Men North of Richmond" and asked them as to their vision for the economy.

Ramaswamy touted his experience founding multi-billion dollar companies as evidence he could navigate the American economy, though Pence dismissed that record, insisting that experience in office was necessary.

"Now is not the time for on the job training," he said.

DeSantis, whom most polls show in second place, largely asserted that he would reverse President Joe Biden's policies and rein in federal spending.

Christie touted his experience as a Republican governor in a blue state and insisted he was best suited to sell conservative ideas to the country. 

Scott touted his efforts to write the 2017 tax cuts and jobs act, suggesting that reducing taxes would prevent additional federal spending.

Ramaswamy pointed to his success story running multi-billion dollar companies.

Haley attributed the country's uneven economic situation in part to Republican willingness to spend money and insisted someone must rein in the GOP as much as Democrats' spending. Pence touted the economic successes of the Trump administration while he was vice president.

Vivek commits to pardoning Trump

Ramaswamy committed to pardoning former Trump on his first day in office, which led to a exchange with Pence, whom he encouraged to join him in making that vow. Pence declined, but expressed that he would give any pardon requests "fair consideration."

Every Republican candidate except for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson agreed to support Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee, even should he be convicted in one of the myriad cases against him.

To appear on the debate stage, candidates had to sign a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee. Trump, facing numerous criminal indictments, could conceivably be convicted of crimes prior to the general election. Almost every candidate raised their hand when asked if they would still support Trump under that circumstance, with Hutchinson the lone exception.

Hutchinson cited "legal scholars" claiming Trump may be ineligible under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

"I'm not going to support somebody who's been convicted of a serious felony or who is disqualified under our constitution," he declared.

Christie's hand went up, albeit slowly, which prompted the moderator to question what he meant. The governor insisted that the party needed to "stop normalizing this conduct" in reference to Trump.

Vivek and DeSantis vs. Pence and Haley on Ukraine

Vivek was one of a handful of candidates who insisted the U.S. southern border is of greater national security concern to the country then Russia's war on Ukraine. The stance drew sharp criticism from Pence and Haley, both of whom supported aiding Kyiv's efforts.

Ramaswamy and Pence jabbed at one another over their competing visions for resolving the conflict.

"News flash ... the USSR doesn't exist anymore," Ramaswamy told Pence, in response to the contention that Russia would roll in to NATO should Moscow succeed in Ukraine.

"I think that this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else's border when we should use those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our own southern border," Ramaswamy said. "We are driving Russia further into China's hands. The Russia-Chinese alliance is the single greatest threat we face."

Haley came out strongly in support for helping the Ukrainian government fight the Russian invasion. She further condemned DeSantis's past classification of the conflict as a "territorial dispute."

DeSantis insisted that the U.S. needed to prioritize defending its own territory before aiding other nations.

"I'm not gonna send troops to Ukraine but I am gonna send them to our southern border," he said.

Scott largely agreed with DeSantis, while highlighting the ongoing drug trafficking crisis and the flow of fentanyl through the southern U.S. border.

"If we just spend 10 billion dollars, we could finish the wall," he said. 

"The climate change agenda is a hoax"

Ramaswamy earned a raucous mix of applause and boos for his stance on climate change.

Moderators presented a question from a young conservative who asked how each candidate would assuage concerns that the GOP does not care about climate change. The tech mogul rejected the entire premise.

"The climate change agenda is a hoax!" Ramaswamy said. "More are dying from climate change policies than actual climate change."

He asserted that his willingness to make the claim came from his status as a candidate who is not "bought and paid for."

He found some support from DeSantis, who expressed openness to discussion on the matter, saying "let's have the debate."

The governor then blamed the media disproportionately assigning favorable coverage to Democrats.


Ramaswamy contended the country needs to put more police officers on the streets to do their jobs without the fear of being sued. He further asserted that the U.S. needs the "spine" to revive mental institutions.

DeSantis pointed to the prevalence of district attorneys with progressive policies refusing to prosecute violent criminals and highlighted his actions to remove them from their posts.

Hutchinson focused largely on reestablishing respect for the rule of law and the American justice system, insisting that Trump had "undermined" it by attacking judges and prosecutors amid his indictments.

Pence vs. Haley on abortion rights

Moderators asked candidates as to the impact of the abortion issue on party electability. Haley opened the issue calling for "consensus."

"Can't we all agree that we should ban late term abortions?" she asked, before suggesting that the country encourage adoption, and that work to protect doctors with moral objections to the procedure from being forced to perform them.

Pence largely discussed his faith and touted his history as a pro-life candidate. He did, however, throw a jab at Haley, saying "[c]onsensus is the opposite of leadership." He further called for a 15 week ban on abortion.

"We are not going to allow abortion until birth," DeSantis vowed. "I'm gonna stand on the side of life."

However, he recognize that different states would pursue different approaches.

Burgum pointed to the 10th Amendment in opposing a federal abortion ban, saying the policy fell under the purview of the states.

"If we say the feds should be in on this one, where do we stop?" he asked.

Ben Whedon is an editor and reporter for Just the News. Follow him on Twitter.

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