The first Republican presidential debate was a brawl between eight contestants.
Some feared it would be boring without Donald Trump, the superstar, but it wasn’t. The former president was the life of the party during 2016 primary debates, but the eight competitors who traveled to Wisconsin showed they could deliver energy without him.
However, some contenders stood out while others looked to lag.
Winners and losers are listed here.
Vivek Ramaswamy: The man who never ran for government and didn’t vote for a president from 2004 to 2020 dominated this Republican discussion.
With a wide smile and fast tongue, he was often the only contender on stage enjoying himself. This political rookie may be playing with house money while taking center stage since he has exceeded expectations.
He comfortably resisted accusations from his fellow contenders that Mr. Christie was auditioning for a show on left-leaning MSNBC and that Ms. Haley was seeking jobs on defense contractor boards with her Ukraine positions.
“I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for,” he declared of climate change, angering his opponents.
Mr. Ramaswamy repeatedly portrayed himself as an outsider against political insiders. His beliefs, such as calling for Ukraine to give territory to Russia, employing military force to secure the US-Mexico border, and barring US corporations from doing business with China, are far from the Republican Party mainstream. However, as Mr. Trump showed in 2016, even absurd policy suggestions can garner attention.
The evening’s discussion ensures that Mr. Ramaswamy will be a force in this contest in the months ahead, even if he doesn’t have the political fuel to fight Mr. Trump for the nomination.
Mike Pence: The former congressman, governor, and vice-president still has some fight left.
His debate-stage expertise helped him on Wednesday night despite his failing presidential campaign, which Trump supporters hate and opponents doubt.
He attacked Mr. Ramaswamy’s inexperience early, saying, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training”.
He passionately demanded national abortion limits based on religion. That won’t help in next year’s general election. But it could help Trump win over evangelical Republicans, who can swing states like Iowa and South Carolina, which are crucial to the GOP nomination.
Mr. Pence concluded the debate by claiming he placed the Constitution first on January 6, 2021, when he declined to throw out the election results at Mr. Trump’s request. His rivals even defended him.
Mr. Pence’s campaign faces many hurdles, but he illustrated why many conservative Republicans once considered him presidential candidate for one night.
Nikki Haley: The former US ambassador to the UN always surprises her detractors. Even against more established Republican governors of South Carolina, she has never lost a contest.
She stood out Wednesday night by criticizing Mr. Trump and the Republican Party early.
The large US budget imbalance was “Republicans did this to you too,” she remarked. “They must stop spending and borrowing.”
When discussing the previous president, she called him the “most disliked politician in America” and warned the Republican Party will suffer in the general election.
Even if she loses this time, her debate performance could position the 51-year-old for future presidential bids in non-presidential years.
Composite of eight candidates
Image caption: Qualified Republican debaters. Asa Hutchinson, Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy, top row left. Nikki Haley, Doug Burgum, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, bottom row from left.
Chris Christie and Tim Scott: Christie performed what many predicted. He criticized Mr. Trump, Mr. Ramaswamy, and others and was generally aggressive.
He was booed when he was presented, criticized Trump, and slammed Ramaswamy.
His best line was that the political novice “sounds like ChatGPT”—but it didn’t win over the crowd.
Tim Scott’s nice-guy nature kept him out of the fire during heated debates. That won’t win over many people, but it could boost his credentials if he wants to be Trump’s vice-president.
Mr. DeSantis: At the start of the year, the Republican nomination fight seemed to be between him and Mr. Trump. The Florida governor’s poll numbers have dropped since then.
If the GOP hasn’t caught him yet, it may after this debate.
His performance was good, especially when he talked about his military service and his calls for more tough opioid epidemic legislation.
He watched the debate’s major moments from the sidelines. Mr. Ramaswamy circled him. His opponents, like Mr. Pence and Ms. Haley, blocked him on abortion and US aid to Ukraine. He appeared unsteady when discussing Mr. Trump’s indictments.
This performance was not enough to bridge the Trump margin. He was a non-factor as the Republican Party’s future.
Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum: Former Arkansas Governor Hutchinson was the penultimate Milwaukee debate contestant. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum got onstage by offering $20 gift cards to everybody who donated $1 to his campaign.
Both candidates needed to prove their worth and were essentially afterthoughts.
Mr. Christie’s assaults on Mr. Trump were stronger than Mr. Hutchinson’s. Mr. Burgum’s awe-shucks small-state conservatism was never notable.
The California primary debate next month has stricter qualification rules, and neither candidate did enough on Wednesday night to earn enough support to return to the platform.