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Off to the races

GOP candidates debate in former President Donald Trump’s shadow

Republican presidential candidates at a debate on Wednesday Associated Press/Photo by Morry Gash

Off to the races

Eight Republican presidential hopefuls vied Wednesday night to become the best alternative to Donald Trump in Republican voters’ minds.

Here’s a look at the candidates’ top issues and where they stood coming into the debate in Milwaukee. Polling numbers represent the national average of the percentage of Republican voters who said a candidate was their top choice, according to RealClearPolitics. Fundraising amounts reflect totals reported to the Federal Election Commission this year as of June 30.

Ron DeSantis

The Florida governor’s polling has consistently declined in the three months since he launched his campaign. And his performance on Wednesday similarly fell short of expectations. DeSantis stuck close to his message of reversing an overall decline in America, but he did not answer many questions or spar with many of the other candidates. 

  • Ukraine: DeSantis promised to stop funding aid to Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia, which he again called a “territorial dispute.” He said he would move that aid money to the U.S. southern border and declare a national emergency on illegal drug trafficking on Day One of his presidency. 
  • Border: Another Day One promise was sending military forces to the nation’s southern border. DeSantis insisted he could stop drug cartels by treating them as foreign terrorist organizations, halting the flow of fentanyl in the country.
  • Crime: His tactic: “Get rid of Soros-funded, radical prosecutors.” DeSantis recently fired two prosecutors in Florida who he said were not adequately bringing cases to trial. He promised to do the same at a national level if elected.”
  • Poll performance: 14.6 percent as of Aug. 20 (14.5 FiveThirtyEight)
  • Funds raised by campaign: $20.1 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $130.6 million
  • In his words: “This election is not about January 6th of 2021. It’s about January 20 of 2025 when the next president is going to take office.”

Vivek Ramaswamy

The entrepreneur made his name as an anti-woke advocate who wrote several books about environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies in corporations. Since launching his campaign, Ramaswamy has grown from a dark horse to more of an established name. His poll numbers combined with an aggressive flair on the debate stage turned him into a target for the rest of the debaters. 

  • Trump: Ramaswamy repeated his promise that he would pardon former President Donald Trump if he is convicted of crimes in the multiple cases that have surfaced in recent months. He called him the “best president of the 21st century.”  
  • Ukraine: Ramaswamy also demanded that the government stop sending any aid money to Ukraine, earning him rebukes from some of the other candidates. He said Ukraine is not a priority; protecting the homeland is. 
  • Education: He promised to shut down the Department of Education, mandate a high school citizenship test, and disband teachers unions. He said education failures are connected to a “crisis of achievement” and to an overemphasis on diversity rather than unity.
  • Poll performance: 7.1 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign: $3.9 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $0.5 million 
  • In his words: “The climate change agenda is a hoax. More people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are from climate change.”

Mike Pence

The former vice president was the most experienced of the Republican candidates on the stage. But he faces ongoing criticism from Trump supporters for certifying Biden’s win on Jan. 6, 2021. That day has dogged his current campaign, as well. Pence avoided most direct mentions of his former boss while also trying to convince voters to put him back in the White House. 

  • Economy: Pence drew on the Trump administration’s record to argue that he can put the economy back into an upward swing. He said he is the most prepared candidate due to his experience negotiating government shutdowns, border policies, and the relationship between Congress and the White House.
  • Trump: The former vice president raised his hand for the first time that he would support Trump as the Republican presidential nominee even if Trump were convicted on federal charges. But he also said the former president was wrong to ask him to halt the certification of electoral votes in 2021. Pence again promised to always put the Constitution above personal interests. 
  • Border: Pence placed himself in backroom discussions during the Trump presidency as the person who helped set border policies. He said he negotiated the Remain in Mexico policy and understood how to use economic pressure to engage with Mexico.
  • Poll performance: 4.3 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign: $1.2 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $2.7 million
  • In his words: “We don’t need a president who is too old or too young. We need a president who has been there. We need someone who knows how Congress and the White House works.”

Nikki Haley

The former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations has struggled to make a splash with her campaign so far. As the only woman on the stage, Haley said she has the drive and the record to accomplish a Republican agenda. She is also one of the only candidates not to take a firm position on pro-life legislation, arguing instead that she can achieve agreement with lawmakers to “save as many babies as possible.”

  • Abortion: Haley called herself unapologetically pro-life but said she also wants to stop demonizing the issue of abortion. She affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision to return the question to the states and said she could find consensus in Congress for pro-life protections. 
  • Ukraine: Haley aggressively pushed back on any slackening of support for Ukraine. She called Ukraine a frontline in the fight for democracy. She chastised Ramaswamy for wanting to pull support from the country: “You are choosing a murderer [Putin] over a pro-American country. … You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.” 
  • Education: One of Haley’s few promises was to add reading remediation standards across schools and restore vocational classes in high schools. 
  • Poll performance: 3.3 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign:  $7.6 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $0.9 million
  • In her words: “I’m going to fight for girls all day long because strong girls become strong women. Strong women become strong leaders. Biological boys do not belong in any of their locker rooms.”

Chris Christie

As much as the former New Jersey governor says it’s time for the country to move on from Trump, his campaign so far has mostly been dedicated to criticizing the former president. Christie has developed a bombastic debating style during his political career, and he used it to defend his record and stances, mostly against Ramaswamy, on Wednesday night. 

  • Crime: Christie took issue with what he called politicized prosecutors engaging in more partisan politics than justice. He promised to appoint to send Hunter Biden to jail for a minimum of 10 years.
  • Trump: The audience did not take well to Christie’s insistence that Trump’s conduct in and out of the White House is “beneath the presidency.” He said he would stand up for law and order and accused Trump of not doing the same.
  • Immigration: Christie promised to focus on both Mexico and China to address not only illegal flows of drugs but also of migrants. He said step one would be to disincentivize unlawful immigration and reward those who have waited to be processed through legal pathways. 
  • Poll performance: 3.1 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign:  $1.7 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $5.9 million
  • In his words (after being asked a question about UFOs): “The job of the president is to level with the American people about everything. To stand for truth. To be a role model for our children and grandchildren. Whether UFOs or education. I started this in 2010 by going right after the teachers unions in New Jersey and drove down to an all-time low popularity rating because they were putting themselves before our kids. That is the biggest threat to our country, not UFOs.”

Tim Scott

Instead of answering several policy questions, the U.S. senator from South Carolina again urged more civility in politics and a renewed trust in the American Dream.

  • Economy: Scott defended his record in the Senate, reminding viewers that he helped write the 2016 tax act. He said he would reverse “Bidenomics” if he wins election to the White House and return millions in federal funds to Americans’ homes. 
  • Political weaponization: He admitted that former President Donald Trump did not have the constitutional authority to overturn the 2020 election but quickly pivoted to judicial concerns. He said he would fight bias in the Justice Department against conservatives and boost trust in the justice system.
  • China: Scott proposed firing IRS agents and creating new Border Patrol positions instead. He called the southern border the nation’s largest security crisis. Scott promised $10 billion to finish the border wall Trump started. 
  • Poll performance: 3 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign: $7.0 million
    In his words: “Our Declaration of Independence says our Creator gave us inalienable rights that include life. That is an issue we must solve. We can’t leave it to Illinois, we can’t leave it to Minnesota. We must solve that issue with a 15-week limit at a minimum.”

Asa Hutchinson

The former Arkansas governor has also made opposition to Trump a staple of his platform. On Wednesday night, he quietly answered most questions but failed to grab the attention of the crowd. He also did not answer moderators’ questions about whether older lawmakers should pass a mental acuity test. 

  • Abortion: Hutchinson sees a role for state and federal lawmakers on pro-life initiatives. He praised 30 pro-life laws he passed while governing Arkansas but said that each state can make different choices. 
  • U.S. Capitol riot: He again called Trump “morally disqualified” from holding office, referring to the 14th Amendment. Hutchinson was the only candidate not to raise his hand in support of Trump if nominated even if convicted. 
  • Border: Hutchinson agreed to use lethal force at the U.S.-Mexico border to stop cartel crossings. He said as president, his top focus would be upholding the rule of law, adding that he could prioritize homeland security and international issues simultaneously. 
  • Poll performance: 0.9 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign: $0.5 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $2.1 million

Doug Burgum

North Dakota’s governor made headlines not for his debate performance but for his injury just hours before. His coming in on a pair of crutches finally got Republican voters and the media talking about the dark horse candidate who often wears cowboy hats. The billionaire businessman can afford to run his own campaign without big PAC donations, but he needed to win voter support at the debate.

  • Abortion: Burgum was the only candidate to say he would not support a federal ban on abortion. He said it would set a bad precedent and that he would advocate each state’s autonomy instead.
  • China: Burgum criticized the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and what he called weak leadership toward China. He promised to send anti-ship missiles to Taiwan and boost energy independence at the same time.
  • Education: Burgum said that as president, he would look at each state differently while also promoting laws he signed in North Dakota. He said not all school districts are indoctrinating children, but he pushed for education reform and abolishing the Education Department.
  • Poll performance: 0.5 percent as of Aug. 20
  • Funds raised by campaign: $1.6 million
  • Funds raised by political action committee: $11.0 million
  • In his words: “I’m from a town of 300 people. It’s a big deal to make it on this stage with all these folks. But I think I took it a little too literally when they said ‘go to Milwaukee and break a leg.’”

On the campaign trail with Trump

While the eight Republican candidates set out to make an impression at the debate, Trump opted to double down on his well-established brand by joining former Fox News anchor, Tucker Carlson, in a pre-recorded, 46-minute conversation. The segment, which aired on Carlson’s X account five minutes before the debate, didn’t focus on any specific policy area or lay out a particular vision for what another four years in the Oval Office could look like. Instead, the two discussed dozens of issues such as voter ID laws, whether California Gov. Gavin Newsome might enter the race as a Democratic challenger to Biden—and even whether disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein had committed suicide behind bars in 2019.

On each of the subjects he touched on, Trump touted his voter base and the shortcomings of the Biden administration.

When asked why he wasn’t in Milwaukee, Trump pointed at his commanding 30-point lead in the polls over other Republican candidates. What did he stand to gain by participating? He expressed similar confidence on topics like his four indictments, his contention of a stolen election in 2020, and potential Republican challengers.

“My poll numbers are the highest I’ve ever had … I think the people of our country get it. They really get it. I got indicted four times. It’s all trivia, nonsense,” Trump said.

Trump also refused to sign on to the Republican National Convention’s pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee—a prerequisite for participation at the debate.

His absence, however, didn’t translate to less attention. Within just four hours of its debut, the interview had garnered 108 million views. By comparison, Trump’s first debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016—at the time the most-watched presidential debate ever—attracted 84 million live viewers.

At the close of his interview, Trump seemed more focused on a potential rematch with Biden in November 2024 than recapturing the Republican nomination.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD reporter covering politics in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


Clara York

Clara is a 2023 World Journalism Institute graduate and a senior journalism major at Patrick Henry College.

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