First U.S. Republican Presidential Primary Debate Focuses on Abortion, Trump

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand on stage and listen to a prayer before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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The first U.S. Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday night revealed the GOP divide on abortion and former President Donald Trump.

The debate held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin saw the participation of eight White House contenders from the Grand Old Party: North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

Trump, the runaway favorite among Republican voters in national and state polls, skipped Wednesday night’s debate. In a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which was posted on social networking platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Trump attacked his Republican challengers.

Abortion was a hot topic at the debate. The candidates held different opinions on a 15-week federal abortion ban. No candidate said they would sign a six-week federal abortion ban.

Pence endorsed a 15-week federal abortion ban while Haley questioned the possibility of passing such legislation, pointing out that there are not enough Senate votes.

DeSantis and Burgum, who have signed six-week abortion bans into law in their own states, stopped short of saying they would do the same federally.

Trump was another topic that drew heated exchanges among the candidates.

When asked by a moderator for a show of hands on whether they would support Trump if he eventually wins the Republican nomination, six candidates raised their hands, some of them hesitantly. Christie and Hutchinson spoke against Trump.

Pence defended his decision to reject Trump’s pressure to overturn the 2020 presidential election. “He (Trump) asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution.”

DeSantis tried to dodge the question of whether Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021 by carrying out his duty to verify the election of Joe Biden as president.

DeSantis argued that a “rehashing” of the issue would play into the hands of the Democrats. Pence dug in and asked DeSantis to answer the question.

“I’ve answered this before … Mike (Pence) did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said and quickly moved on.

The exchanges over Trump triggered jeers and boos from the audience. At a point, a moderator had to intervene to ask the audience to stop booing Christie and to allow the debate to continue.

Other topics included climate change, homelessness and crime, education, the Ukraine crisis, and foreign policy.