Donald Trump’s absence from the debate stage Wednesday night ultimately meant little: This is still the former president’s nomination to lose, and despite a few moments of conflict and clarity among the eight Republican presidential hopefuls onstage, no candidate emerged as a clear alternative.
Still, without the former president, the eight contenders gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were able to have a lively discussion on a range of issues: abortion bans, the reality of climate change, urban crime, K-12 education, immigration, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the rise of China. The differences between the candidates were clear, their varied experiences were on full display, and at certain points, you could see a flash of an old kind of pre-Trump Republican Party debate, deliberating over government spending, illegal immigration, and foreign policy.
But no matter how lively the conversation was, no one on the stage will likely be the next president. Yet once you get over that fact, Wednesday night’s debate has some lessons about the state of the race and the Republican Party.
Here are two winners and three losers from the first Republican presidential debate.
Winner: Donald Trump
It wasn’t until former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley criticized the nearly $8 trillion of federal spending authorized during the Trump presidency that any of the eight candidates criticized the primary’s frontrunner — and that wasn’t until about 15 minutes into the debate.
The former president emerged from Wednesday night’s debate as the clear winner, even though he wasn’t there. He suffered no major surprise blows from the candidates onstage, was frequently defended by one of the loudest voices in the room (Vivek Ramaswamy), and after a question from moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, six of the eight candidates pledged to support him even if he is convicted of a crime.
The audience also showed this loyalty. When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Haley or former Vice President Mike Pence would say something critical of Trump, they were met with boos. By the end of the night, it did not seem as though any candidate could be a realistic alternative to Trump.
And while Trump came in for some expected criticism over January 6 from Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Pence, the attempts to attack Trump also reinforced the apparent pointlessness of the whole affair. While the candidates were happy to bicker over policy, conservative credentials, and track records, they failed to deal any kind of fatal blow to the man leading all of them by double digits in poll after poll.
Loser: Any alternative to Trump
While Trump was the big winner of the whole evening, everyone else seemed like losers. Yes, each of the debate contenders had their moments of brilliance: Mike Pence caught a second wind when the topics of abortion, January 6, and foreign policy came up; Ramaswamy picked fights with Pence and Christie, held his own against them, and seemed to stun the contenders with his witty replies; and Haley, seemingly fed up with Ramaswamy toward the end of the night, hammered him on his foreign policy positions.
But no one emerged as the clear, non-Trump alternative. Pence’s defense of his actions on January 6 didn’t break any new ground, Christie’s Trump attacks were met with boos, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott could not break the mold of a career politician, and Ramaswamy’s Trump-lite grenade-slinging schtick grew tedious. He started to get booed with more frequency after he declared that climate change was a “hoax.”
Within the confines of this debate, Haley stands out as the candidate who stood her ground, cracked enough jokes, and confronted Ramaswamy just as it was needed. But none of it is likely to be enough to catapult her to the front of the pack or seriously challenge Trump.
Loser: Ron DeSantis
Going into debate night, the Florida governor was still the most plausible non-Trump candidate to win the nomination. He was still the next-best candidate in most polls and the most serious threat to Trump, even if diminished by bad news, slips in polling, and a floundering campaign. But he was hardly ever the center of attention on Wednesday — neither going after Trump to try to gain ground against the frontrunner nor attacking the lower-polling rivals trying to seize the second-place spot from him.
At the same time, he was almost completely ignored by the other candidates — one clear exception being when Haley rebutted the premise of a question about DeSantis’s comments earlier this year that the Russia-Ukraine war was a “territorial dispute.” That his rivals didn’t see any point in attacking him shows that he might not be seen as a legitimate risk anymore — and his monotonous responses didn’t inspire much of a response from the audience either.
Winner: A pre-Trump Republican Party
Because so few of the candidates were willing to go after Trump, the debate could, at times, feel like a refreshing flashback to a pre-Trump Republican contest, one where policy proposals, differences on specific issues, and details actually mattered — albeit one where the differences among the candidates were fairly stark. Would the candidates support a national abortion ban? If so, with what timeline? Would the candidates support using lethal force at the Southern border against drug cartels? Would they invade Mexico to do that? And how would they run the economy? Would they freeze government spending?
The moderators asked questions meant to drive a substantive conversation, including one about climate change and the role of humanity in worsening it that landed as a bit of a shocker given the venue (Fox News) and the context (a GOP primary). Though the mood changed as the candidates sniped at each other as the night progressed, for at least the first hour of the debate, the constant talk about debts, balancing budgets, confronting Russia and China, and standing against abortion felt like a callback to a different era of Republican politics.
Loser: Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum
Yes, many of the questions were good and substantive. But the Fox News co-hosts lost control of the debate early on and never won it back. The candidates did not care for the 30-second time limit on their rebuttals, abused the opportunities they were given to respond when mentioned by another candidate, pivoted constantly, and refused to answer questions — especially those having to do with Trump. Nor could the moderators keep a lid on the audience, who cheered, booed, and took any requests for decorum from the hosts as more like suggestions. Better luck to the next hosts, of the next debate, happening in just about a month.