10 take-aways from the GOP debate: A viral song, V.P. hopefuls and ‘the elephant not in the room’

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.
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On Wednesday evening, Fox News Channel broadcast the first Republican primary debate ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier moderated the debate.

The candidates who participated were former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Former President Donald Trump did not participate in the debate because he refused to sign a pledge saying he’ll support whoever the ultimate Republican nominee is, the Deseret News reported.

While Ramaswamy was one of the most vocal candidates on stage, FiveThirtyEight’s initial poll is showing DeSantis as having the highest average rated performance in the debate. Support for Trump saw a “meaningful decrease” from 64.7% to 59.8% among likely Republican primary voters who watched the debate.

Trump is still ahead in the national polls and over the last few months, DeSantis’ average has dropped from 39% to 14.8%. Will DeSantis see a bump in the polls after the recent debate? Who is vying to be a V.P.? What viral song kicked off the debate? These are some questions you may have about the GOP debate.

Here are 10 take-aways from what we saw.


1. Vivek Ramaswamy was attacked 11 times

Biotech CEO Ramaswamy was attacked 11 times during the debate, according to NBC News’ attack tracker. By comparison, DeSantis, who has been second to Trump in the polls, was attacked 5 times.

During the debate, Ramaswamy staged himself as an outsider. As Samuel Benson wrote for the Deseret News, “Some have called the 38-year-old Ramaswamy “Trump 2.0” because of his policy platform and his status as a political outsider, and on Wednesday, Ramaswamy received the brunt of attacks usually reserved for a race’s front-runner.”

When Ramaswamy was speaking about climate change, Christie interrupted and said he “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” per The Hill.

After Ramaswamy discussed his position on Ukraine, Haley responded to him. “The problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is: He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia. He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends,” she said, per Politico. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

At a different point in the debate, Pence also turned his attention toward Ramaswamy and said, “now is not the time for on-the-job training” and “we don’t need to bring in a rookie,” according to The Hill.

The Atlantic columnist McKay Coppins said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, “There’s something about Ramaswamy that really bothers Pence. It’s fascinating.”

2. Trump’s interview with Tucker Carlson was ‘the elephant not in the room’

Five minutes before the GOP primary debate started, former Fox News host Carlson released a prerecorded interview with Trump.

The video reportedly received more than 80 million views within an hour (for context: views on X don’t mean a person watched the video all the way through).

During his interview, Trump told Carlson what his priority is, according to the Deseret News. “No. 1 is the border,” he said. “And taking hundreds of thousands of criminals that have been allowed into our country and getting them out and bringing them back to their country. The first thing I would do would be I’d seal up the border good and tight, except for people who want to come in legally.”


3. Viral country song ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ kicked off the debate

The country anthem that’s become a political flashpoint was referenced in the GOP debate.

After playing a few lyrics from Oliver Anthony’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” moderate MacCallum asked DeSantis “why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now,” per The New York Times.

“We also cannot succeed when the Congress spends trillions and trillions of dollars. Those rich men north of Richmond have put us in this situation,” DeSantis said, according to The New York Times.

4. Pence talked about Jan. 6 more than before

Pence offered a lengthy defense of his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol riot.

“The American people deserve to know that the president asked me in his request that I reject or return votes. He asked me to put him over the Constitution and I chose the Constitution,” Pence said, per Politico.

Other candidates including DeSantis and Christie defended Pence’s actions on Jan. 6. “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said, according to The Associated Press.

“Mike Pence stood for the Constitution, and he deserves not grudging credit,” Christie said, per The Hill. “He deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office and the Constitution of the United States before personal, political and unfair pressure.”

5. Candidates are split on financial support to Ukraine

Republican candidates were divided on whether or not they supported giving aid to Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia last year.

Haley, Pence and Christie defended giving aid to Ukraine while DeSantis and Ramaswamy said they would pare back additional aid, Axios reported.

“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelenskyy, without doing the same for the people in Maui or the south side of Chicago,” Ramaswamy said as he advanced his position that he would not send additional assistance to Ukraine, per Politico.

Haley described Ukraine as a “pro-American country that was invaded by a thug,” according to Axios and defended U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Christie, who went to Ukraine to see what was happening, said, per Fox News, “If we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing, we in Washington, we will be next.”

When DeSantis responded to the question about aid to Ukraine, he said, per CBS News, “I would have Europe step up and do their job.”

6. Will the debate give DeSantis a bump in polls?

Will DeSantis get a boost in the polls or teeter off due to his performance in the debate? Experts have mixed views. Some think it’s possible DeSantis could see a boost.

“Given the stakes for his sputtering campaign, DeSantis had the best night,” Steven Shephard told Politico. “He was able to articulate his positions on the issues central to his candidacy. ... Wednesday night didn’t fix all of DeSantis’ problems. But if he does end up back on his feet, it will be a big reason why.”

Town Hall columnist Kurt Schlichter said, per Fox News, “Let’s be clear — DeSantis was alone in one debate, and everybody else was in another, more annoying one. Calm, confident and capable. DeSantis won.”

Others think the debate won’t change the election much.

“I don’t think it changes anything much. Pence and Haley may get fundraising bumps,” Sally Goldenberg told Politico, “DeSantis can credibly claim he got his message across and probably convince his nervous donors that he’s still a viable alternative to Trump. But Trump is likely to remain the clear front-runner.”

FiveThirtyEight’s polls are showing DeSantis having the highest rated performance in the debate, followed by Haley and Ramaswamy. Initial polling also shows a modest bump for DeSantis and a decrease for Trump.

Before the debate, support among likely Republican primary voters was around 67.5% and it increased to 72.4% post debate, according to FiveThirtyEight.

While Trump still leads in national polls, “he could still lose the nomination, to be clear, especially given his legal troubles,” David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick wrote for The New York Times. With DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy receiving a boost in support, it’s possible polls could change.

7. Does Haley represent ‘an older version of the GOP?’

The New York Times columnist David French said he thought Haley represented “an older version of the GOP.”

“My bottom line — Nikki Haley made a valiant stand for an older version of the GOP,” French said on Threads. “She took on Trump’s profligate spending. She’s unapologetically pro-life, but she understands the practical realities of the abortion debate. She understands America’s vital interests in Ukraine and across the globe.”

But French said “this isn’t the GOP of old, and it’s entirely possible that Vivek will get more of a bump than her.”

Other analysts have said Ramaswamy gave a good debate performance. “I think Ramaswamy did a good job of elevating himself as an equal to politicians and candidates who have been doing this for a long time,” Inside Elections editor Nathan Gonzales told The Wall Street Journal. “We’ll have to see if voters warm up to his message and profile as they hear more from him.”

8. Trump loomed larger than Biden

Though DeSantis mentioned Biden while talking about the economy, Trump was a bigger topic of conversation. “Our country is in decline. This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline. ... We must reverse Bidenomics,” DeSantis said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Trump’s indictments and Jan. 6 were a larger part of the debate. The former president faces 91 charges across 4 cases. Read more about those here.

The moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they’d support Trump if he got convicted. Ramaswamy, Scott, Haley, Pence, Burgum and DeSantis raised their hands, indicating they would support him, per Politico. “We have to end the weaponization of justice in this country,” Ramaswamy said after referring to Trump as the “best president” of the 21st century.

Hutchinson and Christie indicated they wouldn’t support him if he was convicted. “Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said, per the Deseret News. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”


9. V.P. hopefuls are emerging

The field of GOP hopefuls will eventually narrow, and when a clear and definitive front-runner materializes a running mate will be selected, too.

Trump is the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination and there’s some speculation about who the V.P. hopefuls might be.

Off the debate stage, Kristi Noem and Kari Lake are emerging.

Noem’s ads appeared on Fox News during the debate. Earlier in August, she told Fox News if Trump asked her to be his running mate in 2024, she’d accept.

Ahead of the debate, Lake defended Trump’s decision not to appear at the debate, according to Arizona Central. She’s also reportedly among the women who Trump is considering for his running mate.

The debate stage can double as an interview for a running mate, too. Scott and Haley emerged as two of the potential candidates for V.P., according to Aaron Kall, who is the director of debate at University of Michigan. Kall told USA Today that since the candidates have ties to Trump and have avoided attacking him, it’s possible one of them could be Trump’s pick for V.P.

If the front-runner changes, then the discussion around V.P. hopefuls will likely change, too.

10. What about those TikTok and Noem ads?

Over the last year or so, Republican governors have taken to implementing bans of TikTok in their states. Red states like Utah, Georgia, Virginia, Iowa, Texas and others have implemented legislative bans around the app.

TikTok ads made a notable appearance during the debate. There was one showing how TikTok can be used for DIY products. Noem also had an ad that ran a couple of times during the debate.