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Who Won the Republican Debate?

Did any of the candidates emerge to take the spotlight and convince voters to consider them over former President Trump? Political pundits are divided on the issue.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — After the first Republican presidential candidate debate on Wednesday evening, commentators said that while Donald Trump’s absence offered candidates a chance to differentiate themselves, they were uncertain if any of them gained an edge over the former president.

If the frontrunner didn’t participate, is it even possible to declare a clear winner?


Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, viewed as Trump’s strongest challenger, said the debate was his opportunity to speak unfiltered to a vast number of Americans for the first time.

Conservative talk radio host Eric Erickson said DeSantis was last night’s winner because “no one took him out.”

“He stayed above the fray. He answered the questions, kind of led the stage to a degree there from the center, refusing at one point to raise his hand on climate change,” Erickson said.

National Review editor Rich Lowry expected DeSantis to “deal with constant incoming attacks” – but said the governor hit all his themes and took “no incoming fire.”

But others said DeSantis’ delivered scripted responses, staying in comfortable territory and focused on his track record in Florida. “I was shocked by how bad Ron DeSantis is at playing politician,” Rachel Maddow said on MSNBC.

“Ron DeSantis was the leading candidate – still is the leading candidate – on that stage tonight,” former Biden administration press secretary Jen Psaki said on MSNBC. “And they basically ignored him.”

Still, some felt DeSantis commanded attention in the first half of the debate when he short-circuited a question on whether climate change is man-made. “We are not school children,” DeSantis exclaimed as he took shots at Biden for failing to visit Hawaii and launched into his experience on the ground in Florida after Hurricane Ian.


Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was the center of several combative exchanges, pushing back at the other, more experienced candidates in an aggressive, off-the-cuff manner.

Republican lobbyist David Urban, who advised former President Trump, told CNN that Ramaswamy’s visibility made him a “big winner.” But others suggested that voters might find his belligerence off-putting.

“I think Vivek coming out and just taking on everyone on that stage, that is pretty gutsy,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said. “I mean, maybe some people were annoyed by it, but I thought it was pretty gutsy.”

According to Ingraham, Ramaswamy came across as the most unscripted of the candidates. He has “a little life in him, he talks like a human being, he says what he thinks and he pushes back on other people,” Ingraham noted.


Ramaswamy’s impromptu approach called attention to some of the more established rivals, particularly Nikki Haley. Though her campaign has struggled to gain traction, commentators saw her as a voice of reason when she lashed out at Ramaswamy over foreign policy.

“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, let China eat Taiwan, stop funding Israel,” Haley said. “You don’t do that to friends.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, former communications director for Trump, told CNN that Haley “really took Vivek to the woodshed.”

Others said Haley may have struck a note with some voters over her accusations that other candidates are impractical and disparaging towards women over their position on abortion.

“I think Nikki is going to get a second look from some people based on some stuff she said tonight on abortion,” former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News. “I’m very pro-life, but I like what she said – that you don’t demonize or punish women. That’s important.”


While former President Trump continues to claim that he won the 2020 election, Ramaswamy was the only candidate who would not support former Vice President Mike Pence over his role on January 6, 2021.

“Mike Pence stood for the constitution and he deserves not grudging credit but our thanks as Americans,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said during the debate.

Did any of the candidates emerge to take the spotlight and convince voters to consider them over former President Trump?

Cook Political Report publisher Amy Walter didn’t think so. “Trump has to be pretty happy with this debate,” Walter said and indicated that none of the candidates “made their case” to voters looking for other options.

“Perhaps the biggest failure here tonight is nothing was done to make Donald Trump feel like he needs to participate in the next debate,” said Republican political strategist Brendan Buck.