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The first GOP debate yielded heated exchanges, comedy and even a dash of policy

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Eight Republican candidates stood on stage in Milwaukee last night with the goal of becoming their party's presidential nominee. But the man who is polling far ahead of all of them, former President Donald Trump, indicted former President Donald Trump, was missing. Instead, his interview with Tucker Carlson was being aired on X, formerly known as Twitter, at the same time. Still, the first Republican debate yielded heated exchanges, comedy and even a dash of policy. Joining us to talk about all of this are NPR political correspondent Sarah McCammon, who joins us now from Milwaukee, along with NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Good morning to you both.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hey there.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Morning.

FADEL: So, Sarah, let's start with you. Donald Trump is the front-runner in this race, pulling double digits higher than his closest challenger. But he sat this one out, opting for a one-on-one interview instead. So how much did Trump factor in the debate last night?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, Leila, they talked about Trump. But to be clear, the candidates spent most of their time talking about other things, important things like the economy, the war in Ukraine, abortion. But, of course, there were questions about Trump and the charges he's facing, including allegations of election interference. On that, we heard entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who's a bit of a rising star in the primary at the moment, vigorously defending Trump.

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VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Let's just speak the truth, OK? President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century.

MCCAMMON: And then two candidates, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, said they would not support Trump as the nominee if he's convicted on criminal charges. Here's Christie.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: 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.

FADEL: Eric, with so many candidates vying for attention, who made the biggest impression?

DEGGANS: Well, I think they all struggled at various times to command the stage in a telegenic way. But Nikki Haley had some of the strongest moments, especially for a conventional politician, when she challenged Ramaswamy's foreign policy ideas, accusing him of supporting Vladimir Putin. And we've got a clip. Let's listen to it.

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NIKKI HALEY: This guy is a murderer, and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.

DEGGANS: Yeah. And Ramaswamy, for him - for his case, he almost came off as a surrogate for Trump, articulating the same sort of anti-politician style that Trump used to such great effect in his first debates. But he ran out of steam halfway through the debate and began to look less authentic and more overmatched. Pence also surprised with an occasionally combative style, but he's not well-liked among GOP voters. And I think Ron DeSantis didn't hurt himself with any gaffes, but he also didn't dominate the stage the way you would expect the guy running in second place to Trump to do.

FADEL: Sarah, one area of policy difference that came through among the candidates was abortion. It's a topic important to the party's base, yet it's one reason why Republicans underperformed in the midterm elections in the wake of that Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. How did that conversation play out on stage?

MCCAMMON: So you heard candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, both social conservatives who are making a strong play for evangelical votes. They called for national abortion restrictions. But Haley has been more cautious about how she frames this issue. She's staked out a position that may be less likely to alienate general election voters.

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HALEY: When it comes to a federal ban, let's be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes. It will take a majority of the House. So in order to do that, let's find consensus.

MCCAMMON: But Pence has been pushing his Republican rivals to support at least a 15-week national ban if Republicans ever got enough votes. He talked about his religious beliefs and made clear he sees this as a moral issue.

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MIKE PENCE: To be honest with you, Nikki, you're my friend. But a consensus is the opposite of leadership.

FADEL: So we've been talking about the way the candidates performed last night. Let's talk about the people who were asking the questions, Eric. Veteran Fox News correspondent Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum - how'd they do?

DEGGANS: I think they had a lot of trouble controlling the crowd, and they regularly seemed to allow the candidates to blow through their time limits for speaking. In a way, this is another norm that Trump has obliterated through his debate performances - creating a situation where the audience seem - doesn't seem to mind if the candidates disregard the rules and talk for as long as they want about whatever they want. They also asked several questions that might seem odd to anyone who doesn't spend a lot of time watching Fox News coverage, everything from starting the debate with a question about a pop song criticizing Washington politicians to asking about UFOs. So it was interesting.

FADEL: Eric, Trump's prerecorded interview with Tucker Carlson, former Fox host, was put up five minutes before the debate on Fox News - deemed counterprogramming. Does that threaten Fox News' status as the most influential outlet in conservative media?

DEGGANS: Not so far. I mean, Trump's interview was prerecorded, and I think people could duck into it or out of it whenever they wanted while the debate was live. But it is notable that the current front-runner for the GOP nomination is feuding with Fox News. They both need each other in a way because Trump reaches his base through them, and they need his connection to the base. So it'll be interesting to watch these two tiptoe around each other as the nomination process unfolds.

FADEL: So before I let you both go, Sarah, I'd like to end with you. Who had a good night and who fell flat?

MCCAMMON: Well, Ramaswamy did seem to be getting a lot of buzz on social media, for whatever that's worth - had some big moments. Pence and Haley had their strong moments. Christie's had - has a difficult path as an anti-Trump Republican, but he solidified that image. We'll see how that works for him. And like Eric said, DeSantis, I think, was the big underperformer of the night. He just didn't have a lot of the breakout moments candidates are looking for at this stage.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon and Eric Deggans, thank you both so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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 NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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