MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 23: Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eight presidential hopefuls squared off in the first Republican debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined to participate in the event.
With Donald Trump choosing to blow off Wednesday’s first Republican presidential primary debate, all eyes were on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who just a few months ago was considered the most formidable opponent to win the nomination and take on Joe Biden next year.
But DeSantis was not the focus or the target of the seven other candidates on stage Wednesday night from Milwaukee – that ended up being 38-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
DeSantis spoke for exactly ten minutes and one second in the two-hour debate – that put him behind former Vice-President Mike Pence, Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in terms of how much time he had to speak, according to an analysis from CNN.
“Well look, there was a lot of cross-chatter going on. Now my thing is look – we’re auditioning to be president of the United States,” DeSantis said Thursday morning on Fox & Friends. “I’m not here to get into a food fight. If someone came after me, I was ready to go, loaded for bear, we were going to respond, put that to bed. But I was more interested in talking directly to the people at home, rather than kind of some of the bickering that was back and forth. So there was a lot going on, and yeah, my thing is just okay that’s fine but let’s focus on the issues that matter.”
But overall, the debate scene was often raucous, with candidates fighting with other to get their time in.
One of the most interesting points of the debate was when the Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump if is he is convicted in court in any of the four criminal cases he is under. The Florida governor paused and looked to his left and right noticeably before he joined the other five people who raised their hands (Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson did not do so.)
With Trump absent, DeSantis was placed in the center of the stage, and received the first question of the evening. It came after Fox opened the new conservative anthem Rich Men North of Richmond. After playing a clip of the song, moderator Martha McCallum asked the governor, “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
DeSantis responded with what appeared to be a pre-planned opening which didn’t address the song at all.
“Our country is in decline, “ he said. “This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back in his basement and reverse American decline.”
On the issue of whether to continue funding Ukraine in their war against Russia, the Republican base has been split. Seventy House Republicans voted this summer to cut military aid, while DeSantis was roasted earlier this year by other Republicans for calling the issue a “territorial dispute,” which he later walked back.
On the debate stage, DeSantis hedged, saying that he would stop aid to Ukraine unless European governments stepped up to “pull their weight.”
Later former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley seemed to take him to task for that comment, saying that in terms of financial aid to GDP, “11 of the European countries have given more than the U.S,”, a claim that a CNN fact checker ruled was “accurate.”
When the candidates were asked if then Vice-President Mike Pence did the right thing by refusing to interfere in the congressional counting of electoral college votes as Donald Trump wanted in January 2021, DeSantis initially avoided answering the question, saying “this election is not about Jan. 6 of 2021. It’s about Jan. 20 of 2025, when the next President is going to take office.”
After Pence chided him for not answering the question, DeSantis responded that “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him.”
On the issue of abortion, DeSantis has seemingly never been comfortable in talking about the issue, even after signing a controversial six-week abortion ban which has turned off some of his biggest financial donors. The Florida governor said at the debate (as he has on the campaign trail) that he does not think a national abortion ban will work.
“Look, I understand Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to do different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president,” DeSantis said.
While some critics dismissed his performance as relatively nondescript, some in the conservative intelligentsia applauded DeSantis’ performance.
“With his performance, DeSantis cemented himself as the man best suited to unseat Trump as the undisputed champion of Republican politics,” wrote New York Post columnist Isaac Schoor.
“DeSantis was solid, hit all his themes, and took no incoming fire – he helped himself,” said National Review editor Rich Lowry on X.
The governor’s critics were merciless.
“I think DeSantis tonight was absolutely terrible,” said MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “I was shocked at how bad Ron DeSantis is at playing politician.”
“Tonight, all of America saw what Floridians already know. Ron DeSantis is a small, weak politician whose anti-freedom agenda withers under the bright lights of a debate stage,” said Anders Croy, a spokesman for the anti-DeSantis group DeSantis Watch. “Our message for Ron DeSantis is simple: Drop out. Come home. Do your job and stop wasting taxpayer dollars on this ego-driven vanity project while Floridians continue to suffer under the affordability crisis you created.”
The debate came at a time when the Florida governor’s popularity with the national GOP base has never been lower since he declared his candidacy for president in May.
A Yahoo/YouGov poll of 1,665 adults released earlier this week showed that DeSantis’ support among Republican primary voters had dropped to an all-time low of just 12% – an 11% drop in just the last month alone. That’s now just 4 points higher than Ramaswamy – and the poll was taken last week, before the Wednesday night’s debate.
Image Credits: Win McNamee/Getty Images