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Eight Republican candidates meet on the debate stage in Milwaukee while Donald Trump opts for a taped interview

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as former Vice President Mike Pence and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy talk during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. Associated Press/Photo by Morry Gash

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 24th of August, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: I’m Paul Butler…

KENT COVINGTON, PRESENTER: And I’m Kent Covington…first up… Last night’s Republican primary debate.

BROWN: Well, the big GOP debate is in the books and Kent is here … his newsroom was debate central and he’s going to walk us through that first-of-the-season presidential debate night.

COVINGTON: All right, thanks. Well, it was a very, very different debate tonight without having the the front runner on the stage. That's rather unusual. But again, Donald Trump chose to sit out. But that did perhaps supply a little bit more oxygen to the room for everyone else. And joining me now to break down the first presidential debate of 2023, our world writers, politics reporters, Carolina Lumetta and Leo Briceno from the Washington Bureau, and World Opinions commentator Hunter Baker. He is also a professor of political science at Union University. And Hunter, I'll turn to you first. We'll have to wait of course and watch to see in the weeks ahead to see if any of the candidates get a bump in the polls from their performance. But first first reactions to you did anything stand out? In particular?

HUNTER BAKER, GUEST: Yeah, I thought that Vivek Ramaswamy stood out, I thought that he sort of dominated the debate. I think that he took a lot of the oxygen away from Ron DeSantis. And and I thought that there were a lot of a lot of the debate was spent with other people reacting to him.

COVINGTON: Yeah, without a doubt. Now, they're just kind of looking at some of the reaction to Vivek. And of course, this is all anecdotal, but it just there seems to be a lot of both a lot of people that were impressed and they really liked them. A lot of people that thought, well, he seemed he seemed smug. He seemed overbearing, they didn't learn, they didn't think or they didn't come away with confidence in his ability to lead. So kind of mixed results. But without a question. He's going to be a better known candidate, after last night, but he, one thing that stood out was that he did praise former President Trump fairly lavishly, including this remark:

RAMASWAMY: President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century.

So that begs the question, and why are you running against him? If he's the greatest president of the century, and Trump recently complimented Vivek as well. So, Leo, what's what's the strategy here for the Vivek Ramaswamy campaign?

LEO BRICENO, REPORTER: Yeah, I think, as you mentioned earlier, get the eyeballs right, get your name out in front of people. And I think last night, he did that, as we were just discussing some of the clips right after the debate took place. We were noticing that a lot of people mentioned Ramaswamy. And that gave him an opening to discuss a lot. He took a lot of heat from a number of people on the stage and that gave him ample opportunity to respond. And so that I think if you're Vivek Ramaswamy that's exactly what you're looking for screen time.

COVINGTON: The parallels with Trump are striking. Obviously, he's a business person with no political experience. Like I said, he's been very he's been very, he's praised President Trump President Trump's complimented him he was he kind of at times seemed almost like a Trump surrogate on the stage really being the the disrupter Carolina, what do you think was Vivek Ramaswamy's strongest moment in the debate?

CAROLINA LUMETTA, REPORTER: I mean, if we're talking in terms of policy, I think we still have to see that because he actually didn't promise too much. He kept his answers very theoretical, talking about fighting woke ism, talking about returning to the American Dream solving an identity crisis, I think, yeah, his strongest performance was just being so aggressive. And a lot of us thought that DeSantis was going to be the target of a lot of criticism. He's the second runner behind Trump. But Ramaswamy took up so much oxygen and space as a newcomer, and he put everybody else on the defensive by saying I'm the only one on this stage who isn't bought, and every other person on that stage then turned in on him and said, Well, wait, who are you? Why are you? Who are you to say this to us? He became his own topic. And I think that that propels him forward. But I don't know if that's going to translate into people liking him,

COVINGTON: Right. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, obviously, as you said, Carolina, the second in the polls to dis a distant second, but still a solid, you know, second solidly ahead of the other candidates for the moment in the polls. He never really engaged in any actual debate that that I can remember last night, I don't remember him really asserting himself. Instead, he seemed to sort of wait to be called upon, stick to the script, you know, just kind of delivered a monologue and then waited until he was called upon again. So I don't I don't think it'd be many people here today saying Ron DeSantis was the clear winner. On the other hand, he didn't really take any damage either. So Hunter, it felt like a safe performance to me. But was that was that what he needed? How would you evaluate the governor's performance?

BAKER: I agree that he played it safe. I think that that he did kind of stay out of the fray. He has the best record, arguably. I mean, you're looking at somebody who, and he mentioned this somebody who won 60% of the vote in a state that went for Barack Obama. That's impressive. But but I just don't think that we saw that on the stage. He left some of it in the locker room or, or it's simply the fact that he is he is really good at governing and making things happen as an executive, and is less good in this kind of debate chamber environment. But he seemed a little lost. He's, I think he faded, and they're going to have to figure out a way that he can reassert himself.

COVINGTON: From my perspective, I thought DeSantis's strongest moment was probably shutting down the hand raised challenged by the moderators last night and the climate change question they said is manmade climate change is a man caused by show of hands go on the record, show us your hands, Ron DeSantis? Well, here's what he had to say,

DESANTIS: Look, we're not schoolchildren, let's have the debate. I mean, I'm happy to take it to start Alexander. I don't think that's the way to do so let me just say to Alexander this, first of all, one of...

DeSantis really shut that down. He really took took charge of the stage and said, No, no, we're not going to do that. We're not We're not children. We're not playing that game. And then he took charge and went from there that felt like the strongest moment but what, I'll leave this open to anybody who has a strong opinion about it, what do you think was Ron DeSantis's strongest moment last night?

LUMETTA: In terms of policy discussions, he promised to declare a national emergency over sending money to Ukraine. And that's a pretty controversial opinion, even within Republican circles. So that was where you kind of saw his Governor side come out a little more. And he was pretty firm on the southern border as well. Another one of his promises is that I will send military forces there on day one, to start addressing cartels in the area. So those were the parts where he really was strong. But there just weren't enough of them, I think.

COVINGTON: Well, let's turn to former Vice President Mike Pence, he seemingly has been in kind of an awkward place from day one, you know, on multiple occasions, he found himself defending the record of the Trump administration. I don't I don't know that he's found a way yet to make a case for himself for President without simultaneously making the case for Trump as president, and this, again, is an open question for for any of you who'd like to answer did Pence accomplish what he needed to accomplish last night? And why or why not?

BAKER: Well, vice presidents typically run with the support of the person under whom they served. And that is that is not available to him. I think that his pitch was the positive achievements of the Trump administration were basically dependent upon him, that he was the guy who knew how to operate the machinery of government. And he was the guy who got things done. But he is in a unique position in terms of American history trying to run without the backing of the person who served as president and that shows in his low poll numbers.

COVINGTON: That's a hard a hard sell to make. I would have to thank now this this is highly anecdotal. But just gauging on initial reactions, I seems like a lot of people were really impressed with former ambassador former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's performance, she had a huge applause line going after Vivek Ramaswamy, telling him you have no foreign policy experience, and it shows. Carolina, what was your reaction to her performance last night in? How do you think it will move the needle for her campaign, if at all?

LUMETTA: Of all the candidates on the stage, I think she was the one who achieved the most that she really needed to for her campaign. By all metrics. She is a really strong candidate, but she has struggled to get past even 3% in the polls. So she really needed to make a splash last night, and I think that she did, and that came out the most when it came to foreign policy. She really took Vivek Ramaswamy to town on everything he was saying about Ukraine, where she said, No, I've met with Putin, you don't know who you're dealing with. And that's the type of language you really want to hear from a candidate like that, especially for the year that we're in. Yeah, I think she gave the strongest performance. I think she made the waves that she needed to, and we'll see if the polls reflect that, but I think there's a really good chance that they will.

COVINGTON: Okay. New Jersey Governor, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, at least to my memory, turned in the only real moment of levity on the night when he was asked this question of all things about UFOs.

MARTHA MACCALLUM: Governor Christie, do you believe that the recent spike in UFO encounters...

CHRISTIE: I get the UFO question?

But he also took Trump to task as he promised he would do, but it was not a friendly crowd for that he drew a lot of boos when he did. And he really wasn't the same as if Trump was there, he did not get the benefit of being able to go toe to toe with Trump as if he were on the stage with them. So how did that how did the night go for Chris Christie?

BAKER: Well, I thought that Christie had a very good night. He he probably got significantly more attention than his current poll numbers would would seem to merit in a lot of ways. He's kind of like the politician of yesterday, he he was super hot around, say, 2012. And then, you know, faded with with sort of a bad second term in New Jersey. But he did really well, in the debate forum. Last night, probably one of the top four for sure. And I think he's gonna get a second look.

COVINGTON: Hunter, by not attending, perhaps Trump did protect himself or insulate himself to some extent from taking any damage, even though there were some sort of attacks there from from a distance. Did that help him or does he risk looking like an absent leader was was it a smart decision or No, with a night to sleep on it?

BAKER: It helps him right now. I think that right now, he still has the ability to kind of control his own destiny, that could change as the legal challenges mount. But what he most does not want to happen is to be bested on the debate stage. Right, you know, and somebody like Vivek or or, or maybe Nikki Haley, or Chris Christie, maybe they could land a significant blow, where Trump would not be able to come back with something, something really strong. And I think he wants to avoid that he, you know, I don't think that Trump is especially that good as a debater, I think that his policy knowledge is weak, and he can easily be exposed, depending on the flow of a debate. I think he's wise to stay out for now.

COVINGTON: Okay. Lightning round here, let's go around the the room so to speak very quickly. Describe a moment or two from this debate very briefly, the voters will still remember a week from now.

LUMETTA: The topic that might stick out for a lot of listeners is how many different candidates had different positions on abortion. Nikki Haley, again discussed how we need federal consensus on maybe a federal solution, maybe a statewide solution pen said no, there absolutely needs to be a 15 week ban. That was a moment where you really saw a lot of fractures within the primary. And I think that's going to be pretty memorable.

COVINGTON: Hunter, how about you sir?

BAKER: What the media is going to remember is Vivek saying climate change is a hoax. That will be that will be the big takeaway.

COVINGTON: Without a doubt, Leo, how about you, sir?

BRICENO: I'm also going to go to Ramaswamy. I think at one point, he made the claim that the nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind. I think that's a very conservative. As a Christian, I would say, a very Christian thing to say it seems like an appeal to an ethos and a set of ideals. It goes beyond just the set presented by a Republican GOP party as a political function.

COVINGTON: Yep. Good. That was was a good line. One more lightning round again, very quickly, who helped themselves the most tonight and why again, we'll start with with Carolina.

LUMETTA: Yeah, I've got to say with Nikki Haley, she, she pulled it through in a lot of the ways that she needed to.

COVINGTON: Okay, Leo very quickly.

BRICENO: I'll also go with Nikki Haley. I think that as far as policy is concerned, she knocked it out of the park.

COVINGTON: All right, Hunter,

BAKER: Nikki Haley and Vivek, both of them, both of them are gonna get a lot of attention based on last night.

COVINGTON: Okay. Leo, really quick before we wrap up here, you were running in circles last night, sir, keeping tabs and former President Trump's pre taped interview with Tucker Carlson, which ran last night. Any big takeaways from that conversation?

BRICENO: Yeah, I think the number one question out of Tucker's mouth was Trump, why are you not on the stage with your fellow Republicans? And his answer was, listen, I don't need to be on that stage. And I think that while in a sense, it's a little bit of a shield against maybe some of the criticisms, maybe some of the attacks you would have faced from other candidates. I don't think he's wrong. I mean, he's beating everyone else in the field by at least 20 points. And quite frankly, when you can have 40 minutes to have a one on one conversation with it with a communicator that has an incredibly large following that, you know, he's going to be feeding you questions that aren't necessarily antagonistic, right? Why would you not take that opportunity? When on a Republican debate stage, you'd have to be fighting for every 15 to 30 seconds wherever you can get a sound bite. So I think that while he in his 40 minutes with Tucker, he didn't necessarily focus on any one policy idea. It was very much the continuation of an entire vault. Volume of conversations that we've had with Trump on immigration, domestic policy with the economy with his indictments with election fraud. It felt like just a continuation of themes that he's been playing on for years.

COVINGTON: Okay, Hunter Baker, Carolina Lumetaa and Leo Briceno, thank you all.

LUMETTA: Thanks for having us.

BAKER: Thank you.

BRICENO: Thanks.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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