During the first Republican debate, Vivek Ramaswamy plays Donald Trump

During the first Republican debate, Vivek Ramaswamy plays Donald Trump

Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy on the debate stage in Milwaukee.Image by Getty Images via AFP

The question is very simple. “Do you think climate change is caused by humans?” Early Wednesday night, participants in the first ever GOP election debate will be offered a binary choice: Hands up for yes, Hands up for no. And here are eight candidates, pinned to the podium. Who dares first? It is not the hand that moves.

Gov. Ron DeSantis explodes, “We’re not school kids.” “Let’s just discuss!”

For a moment it seemed as if the moderators, Bret Baier and Martha McCallum of Fox News, wouldn’t take it. But when DeSantis starts an almost irrelevant one-on-one dialogue about Joe Biden and disaster relief while the other candidates talk straight through it, the two give up. They won’t get an answer.

Finished by the author
Thomas Ruepp is the US correspondent for De Volkskrant. Lives in New York. He is the author of the book Laura H.

And this is how things repeat themselves on Wednesday. Clear statements collide with vague answers, and the presenters don’t push any further. Especially with DeSantis, the avoidance of the situation takes hallucinatory forms.

In the absence of former President Donald Trump, who was absent from this debate (“the elephant is not in the room,” says host Pierre), all eyes were mainly on the second man, DeSantis. After a successful start, the Florida governor has fallen further in the polls in recent months. And in this debate, DeSantis will finally see his promise come true: that he’s the new Trump, devoid of all the drama.

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Quiz “Who is Trump tonight?” However, DeSantis loses in this debate. The honor goes to 38-year-old businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Bright.

He continues to smile

Ramaswamy is the laughing heart of this debate, looking at ease as he hurls one extreme statement after another into the room. The need for climate action? He says: “trick”. “More people die from bad climate policies than from climate change.” The United States must withdraw its support for Ukraine. The FBI must be closed down. It is as if he is presenting a bouquet of roses to Trump supporters, who are represented audibly by the audience.

This makes Ramaswamy, not Disantis, the punching bag for the other candidates. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former governors Nikki Haley and Chris Christie in particular are attacking him, especially when it comes to Ukraine. “You don’t have any foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Haley quipped. Unknown before, Ramaswamy continues to smile – and his stature grows with each attack.

The candidates show very little interest in DeSantis, who is their biggest competitor at this point. The question is how comfortable the governor should be with that. This way, DeSantis doesn’t talk as much, and as a result he’s less in the picture.

Pence and Haley are now able to distinguish themselves more sharply. Highlighting his experience under Trump and the Christian establishment, she presents herself as a rational voice with relatively nuanced views on abortion and geopolitics. Christie had a harder time, as did former governor Asa Hutchinson. Their main annoyance is attacking Donald Trump unobtrusively – which was not possible during this discussion.

A special media moment for Trump

The former president himself tried to create his own competitive media moment during this televised debate in his absence. Trump posted a pre-recorded interview on X (formerly Twitter) with Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson. And in 46 minutes, he criticized his Republican rivals, President Joe Biden, and his imminent arrest in Georgia.

In the debate studio, the “elephant” isn’t actually named until late in the evening. The eight candidates are again offered a binary option. The hosts ask: “If Donald Trump were convicted of a criminal offense, would you still support him as a candidate on behalf of the party?” Hands up for yes, down for no. Hands are shooting in the air this time. Six for and two against.

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