The first debate with Republican candidates for president happened last night – what are the takeaways?

August 24 – The day after the first Republican National Committee debate is often full of speculation and discussion and analysis. 

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last night, eight Republican candidates for president in 2024 took the stage to answer a variety of questions. Those candidates were Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina; former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum; and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Former president Donald Trump, who is also running for president in 2024, was not in attendance. He had a pre-recorded interview with Tucker Carlson at the same time. 

There were 6,000 people in the Fiserv Arena to hear what the candidates had to say, which could be an all-time record for people in-person watching a debate.  

Attorney Clint Barkdoll suggested, “The winner of the debate may have been Donald Trump who wasn’t at the debate because I’m not sure anyone on that stage had the breakout moment that many predicted. I thought some perform much better than others. I thought Mike Pence did surprisingly well. I thought Nikki Haley was surprisingly strong. She was very critical of a lot of the Republican politicians on that stage, pointing out that they voted for these massive spending increases when they were members of the Senate and Congress. She had several moments like that. She had a very fiery exchange with Vivek Ramaswamy, too, who I thought also had a very strong night. I was a bit disappointed that Ron DeSantis was not stronger, not that he did poorly, but I felt that he avoided a lot of the questions that were asked by the moderators. I thought he performed okay, but he didn’t rise to the level that you would think. Hey, there clearly is going to be the front runner. Tim Scott, I was very disappointed. A lot of people have had their eyes on him as someone that could break through this pack. He was very just kind of soft and muted last night, and had very little to say. Chris Christie, as expected, very critical of Donald Trump, very critical of other people on the stage. He got booed at several points from the crowd. Asa Hutchinson also was very critical of Trump. Doug Burgum from North Dakota, I didn’t think made a big standout performance either.”

Was the enormous crowd a good or bad thing? 

Barkdoll said, “In some ways, I think it detracted from the event. The moderators were constantly being interrupted by cheering and boos. At one point, Bret Baier turned around to the audience and said, look, folks, if you want us to keep getting into issues, you need to tone it down because the interruptions were so frequent throughout the night. So that I thought also created an odd dynamic. Fox also took a bunch of commercials during the debate, which I didn’t realize they were going to do. So there were at least three, if not four, commercial breaks. That kind of interrupted the tick tock of the debate last night.”

In a few weeks, a second RNC debate will be held in the Reagan Library in California, again hosted by Fox News. 

Barkdoll said, “That will be a much smaller venue with a much smaller crowd in attendance.”

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “Listen, Fox has got to start making up for that lost revenue ever since Tucker has been gone. Of course they’ve got to take commercial breaks.” 

During the debate, DeSantis said, “This election is not about January 6 of 2021. It’s about January 20 of 2025 when the next president is going to take office. I know what the Democrats would like to do. They want to talk about all these other issues, but we’ve got to focus on your future. We’ve got to focus on reversing the decline of our country.” 

Ramaswamy suggested that the Department of Education, the FBI, the ATF, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the IRS, the Department of Commerce, many of them, should not exist. When it comes to education, Ramaswamy thinks it should be in the parents’ hands. 

He said, “We have a crisis of achievement. Let’s shut down the head of the snake, the Department of Education. Take that $80 billion, put it in the hands of parents across this country. This is the civil rights issue of our time, allowing any parents to choose where they send their kids to school, ending the teachers unions at the local level to allow public schools to compete.”

There was cheering in the background for that one. 

PA Representative Rob Kauffman said, “Some interesting observations, there were times where they were raising their hands. I think there was twice in the debate where they would raise their hands, well he (Ramaswamy) was the only guy who just unabashedly raised his hand. He didn’t look around. He didn’t try to stick his finger in the wind and decide which way it was going to blow on the stage. He just raised his hand and said, first of all, I believe it was, no more aid going to Ukraine and I believe the other one was supporting President Trump if he would get the nomination. I think most Americans, if they were watching, would find that refreshing. He didn’t have to take a poll before he raised his hand. Then you had other ones who, they just weren’t quick on the draw. But then you had other ones who you could watch them looking around and trying to figure out what they should do. And that was pathetic. That was absolutely pathetic.”

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM added, “And then waiting for the audience’s response.”

“Yes, yes,” Kauffman agreed.

Jansen said, “That was very, very interesting. At the very end, they’re closing statements. I really liked the way Vivek laid it out. I thought that he did a great job, but when he says the fourth branch of government, now it’s funny, I’ve seen some other news media get this wrong. They think it’s the media, but it’s the administrative state. I always say that Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the federal government. We have a little problem with the administrative state here, too, correct?”

Kauffman said, “Absolutely. Every time you think you’re making headway, you run up against the bureaucrats who try to find the name of the person that’s responsible and that’s the battle. When they address the issue of education, it’s important to know that Vivek, he actually has been to Philadelphia to Kensington. If you’ve seen any videos, that’s the worst of the worst part of Philadelphia right now. He’s actually been there. He’s the kind of guy who wants to go right in there. Talk to people where they’re at. They don’t have to be Republicans, obviously, in the city of Philadelphia, it’s hard to find one, a Republican. It’s really telling that he’s going to go to the inner cities and he’s going to make the case and when you make that case, in Philadelphia, a lot of times you can win folks over. So I think he’s refreshing. Now, obviously there’s no perfect candidate, no matter what anyone wants to say, but I think he adds a really good dynamic in this debate. He obviously is from a different generation. He doesn’t worry about what his handlers are saying. He’s not worried about his donors. He is just saying what he believes. That’s obvious.”

Barkdoll said, “(Ramaswamy) also had some good answers about energy in the US. My one criticism of him and that’s the longest I’ve ever seen him in action, he might be a little bit too hot. I mean, at one point Chris Christie said he sounds like a chat GPT machine. Some of the other candidates, Pence, also Nikki Haley, really went after him. Of course, that’s because he’s in front. Some polls even have him ahead of DeSantis. But he may be a bit too animated. I saw some polling overnight where many viewers did rate him as the winner of the debate, but a lot of viewers also said they were a bit turned off by him. He was just constantly laughing. He had these very loud animated answers with everything. Some people love. A lot of people did not like it.”

Jansen pointed out, “First of all, it’s his first debate ever, so he’s not experienced at this kind of format. Secondly, I don’t know that they went in there necessarily realizing that he was going to be the center of attack. I think DeSantis may have messed up because partially he was expecting more of an attack and didn’t get it. I’m not sure, but the dynamics were interesting to me. I do think though, that chat GPT comment was probably pre-prepared, though, I don’t think that was spontaneous. I liked his response. What are you going to do to hug me like you did Obama? I think that was a pre-planned comment. I think, Christie, of course, he’s there as the bulldog to attack Trump and being that the candidates I don’t think focused on Trump so much, he didn’t really have a chance to do what he really wants to do. Certainly the audience reaction to Christie was, they don’t like it. I think the Republican Party better get it through their heads. The Republican electorate still likes Trump, and you’re not going to get a whole lot of happiness from a lot of that electorate by attacking Trump. I think that’s a mistake. I think the idea that we focus on the policies and focus on what’s going to change is a better idea. I agree Vivek probably comes off, I’ve been following him for years, so he doesn’t surprise me necessarily and I like so much of what he has to say that I guess I can brush off some of the criticisms that I think are fair. He’s probably got to learn how to tone it down. I loved his closing because I think in very stark terms, he said in a few words covered the gamut of what’s going wrong, and what we need to restore in our country.”

Barkdoll said, “He was also the biggest cheerleader on the stage for Donald Trump. At one point Vivek said Trump was the best president of the 21st century. There were some questions that clearly would have opened the door for candidates to criticize Trump, and other than Asa Hutchinson and Christie, all of the other ones just deferred, they wouldn’t comment at all, but Vivek was very forward in praising Trump. You do wonder, is he positioning himself to be on the ticket with Trump or to get into the cabinet with Trump possibly? There’s also some reporting overnight all of those one-liners are likely rehearsed, from all of these candidates. They had that stuff in their cuff and they were just ready at the right time to roll them out. At one time, I think Vivek said to the candidates, now that you’ve all got out your pre-prepared one-liners, can we talk about issues? Mike Pence said to Vivek, well, was that also part of your pre prepared remarks for that one liner? So a lot of this is kind of stagecraft rehearsed.”

Nikki Haley said last night, “That it is time for a new generational conservative leader. We have to look at the fact that three quarters of Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden. And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”

That got some boos. 

Ryan asked, “Boy did she blow it there.”

Barkdoll said, “What struck me about her last night and I thought she actually had a pretty strong performance. She said some things that she knew were going to be unpopular in that arena. She also got into some very dicey discussions about abortion and telling the Republican Party we need to figure out this issue because we’re going to keep losing elections if we go with this zero tolerance on abortions. No one would bite on that. No one really wanted to engage in that debate with her. She went really on the attack against Republicans for the way they spend, blaming them and Trump for the record debt that they accumulated during his presidency. That poll she cited, we’ve been talking about that on this program the last week. That poll is true. Seventy-five percent of Americans don’t want Trump or Biden. But again, she threw that out last night. No one on the stage wanted to get into that discussion.”