Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (2023)

Welcome to Opinion’s commentary for the first Republican presidential primary candidate debate, held in Milwaukee on Wednesday night. In this special feature, Times Opinion writers and contributors rate the candidates on a scale of 0 to 10: 0 means the candidate probably didn’t belong on the stage and should have dropped out before the debate even started; 10 means the candidate can head to Iowa and New Hampshire with the wind at his or her back. Here’s what our columnists and contributors thought about the debate.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (1)

Nikki Haley
Average: 6.3/10

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Jamelle Bouie: To the extent that anyone had a good performance, it was Nikki Haley, who didn’t seem to be running for the Republican nomination as much as she was casting herself as a choice for the general election next November. How else to explain her desperate attempt to get her colleagues to evade the question of a national abortion ban? Haley seems to understand that the Republican Party needs, at some point, to win a majority of the voting public, and that the only way to do that is to retain at least a tenuous link to reality and real problems.

Gail Collins: She seemed generally reasonable and wow, when the debate turned to education and she actually brought up reading.

Matthew Continetti: Haley made the most of her time before the cameras. She needed to remind G.O.P. voters that she was in the race, and why. She succeeded on both counts. And her answer on abortion proved that she is just as interested in winning the general election as the primary.

Michelle Cottle: Solid performance. Landed some punches — including her opening whack at Republican lawmakers for their heavy spending under President Trump — and gave not one inch during a tussle with Ramaswamy over foreign policy. She was pushing a political pragmatism unlikely to play well with the base, but — who knows? — maybe some of those alienated suburbanites will take note.

Ross Douthat: A perfectly competent and therefore insufficient performance for a polished candidate without a clear rationale or lane.

David French: Here at last was a conservative who called out Trump’s profligate spending, a pro-life politician who gave an appropriately pragmatic answer to the challenge of national legislation, and a foreign policy hawk who dismantled Ramaswamy’s isolationism on live television. All of it warmed my old-school Reagan conservative heart. If there’s any life left in the old G.O.P., Haley gave it hope.

Michelle Goldberg: She came across as the most frank and levelheaded person onstage, not that that’s a high bar. Perhaps more important, in taking on the glib and callow Ramaswamy on Ukraine, she showed anger and dominance, essential qualities in a Republican debate. Her genuine contempt for him recalled the dynamic between Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg in 2020.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: The sickest burn on Trump wasn’t a Christie zinger. It was Haley’s brutal realism. “Trump is the most disliked politician in America” and “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt.” Her realism on Senate vote counts for abortion bans at the national level, federal spending and other matters of actual governance made her the surprise grown-up in a room full of ostensibly grown men.

Daniel McCarthy: As expected, Haley made her mark as the most hawkish candidate in the field, and considering Vivek Ramaswamy’s polling momentum, she probably raised her own profile by sparring with him about Ukraine. But her one issue is war, and Republicans like her have lost too many these last 20 years.

Bret Stephens: The star of the evening. Confident, prepared, sane and projecting the aura of someone who can win a general election.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (2)

Mike Pence
Average: 5.1/10

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Jamelle Bouie: Mike Pence’s biggest problem on that stage — and in the Republican primary — is that a substantial portion of Republican voters thinks he is something akin to a traitor. His second biggest problem is that he has the affect of a do-nothing president in a direct-to-streaming science fiction film. Which is to say that his choice to appear resolute at all times leaves him in a place where he says nothing, incredibly slowly.

Gail Collins: Mike Pence is destined to be 5 out of 10 for the entire election.

Matthew Continetti: Pence reminded voters that he’s a skilled debater, guided by political principle, who has command of the issues. I wonder if his decades of experience will be a liability in a G.O.P. that believes history began in 2016.

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Michelle Cottle: He got far more attention than most folks expected, largely by going hard at Ramaswamy and turning the debate into the “Mike and Vivek” show. He seemed to be trying for world weary statesman crossed with fierce fighter. But too often he came across as the stodgy, defensive curmudgeon yelling at Vivek to get off his lawn.

Ross Douthat: Moral clarity, debating chops, a message frozen in amber in 1985 and a visceral hatred for Vivek Ramaswamy: It won’t get him the nomination but it made for some of the better theater of the night.

David French: He was shrewd to go directly after Ramaswamy, and several minutes of the debate were focused entirely on the candidates paying tribute to Pence’s constitutional stand on Jan. 6. I expected that he’d be an afterthought. Instead, he took command of the stage more than once. When it wasn’t Haley’s night, it was Pence’s, and that’s a genuine surprise.

Michelle Goldberg: Unexpectedly fiery!

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Pence’s odd choice to focus on attacking Ramaswamy ended up undermining his gravitas. Mike Pence is a serious person, but he acted more like a grumpy old man on the stage, alternately leaping in to claim time on the debate clock when the Trump administration was attacked (“the Trump-Pence administration” as he called it) and then distancing himself from the former president.

Daniel McCarthy: The former vice president has fairly typical Republican views but a much stronger résumé than other moderate conservatives, and he sounds like an adult. His frequent invocations of his Christianity are surely sincere but also, of course, smart for positioning for Iowa. But nothing he said suggests he’ll do well with populist G.O.P. voters in most states.

Bret Stephens: Pious and pompous; he seems to think Jesus wants him to be president.

Jamelle Bouie: I was expecting much more from Christie. He had one good swing at Ramaswamy — describing his rhetoric as written by ChatGPT — but was otherwise on the defensive or trying to explain that at one point, he was a governor too.

Gail Collins: He kept his anti-Trump message going without getting lost there; you’ve got to root for anybody on this show with a sense of humor.

Matthew Continetti: When the debate began, Christie seemed somewhat tired and off his game. Vivek Ramaswamy woke him up. He spent the rest of the debate delivering an impressive performance. And his defense of Mike Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, was eloquent and necessary.

Michelle Cottle: The most natural and comfortable of the bunch. He made concise, cogent points, deftly promoted his record, sounded reasonable but not boring, didn’t seem mean or testy even when calling out Ramaswamy for being an insulting twerp, showed flashes of humor, turned that weird U.F.O. question to his advantage. The guy gives good TV — even if the live audience hated him.

Ross Douthat: Effective as expected in selling himself as the candidate for anti-Trump Republicans; ineffective in showing how he could possibly break Trump’s hold on the rest of the G.O.P.

David French: Those hoping for a Christie moment, a dismantling of a front-runner akin to his 2016 dismantling of Marco Rubio, left the debate disappointed — not necessarily because Christie was bad, but because that honor went to Nikki Haley, who brutally dressed-down Vivek Ramaswamy over foreign policy. Any debate that doesn’t feature Chris Christie at the front of the highlight reel is a bad night for Christie.

Michelle Goldberg: Weirdly low energy, especially in the face of the inevitable boos from Trump supporters. He’s supposed to be a brawler, but he couldn’t even knock out Vivek Ramaswamy.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Christie embodies a kind of civic-minded vindictiveness, in which he uses his powers of cracking wise for what he — and many others — consider the good of the nation. His blows seemed to land harder on Ramaswamy, however, than they did on Trump or Joe Biden.

Daniel McCarthy: Martha MacCallum treated him like a joke by asking him and only him about U.F.O.s, but Christie responded with the right mix of exasperation and humor. Otherwise, Christie failed to stand out on any issue except being anti-Trump, which did indeed make him seem like a candidate for another party or a guy trying out for MSNBC.

Bret Stephens: Disappointing except for a good final answer on U.F.O.s. He’s nothing without his foil.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (4)

Ron DeSantis
Average: 4.5/10
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Jamelle Bouie: This debate has confirmed what his steep decline in the polls has suggested: Ron DeSantis has no gas, no spark, no juice. He was barely a presence onstage and when he spoke, it was with a distinctly off-putting style of petulant aggression, peppered with references to the villains of the larger Fox News Cinematic Universe (“Fauci! Deep state! Hunter Biden!”).

Gail Collins: Pretty surprising how boring he was; he did perk up when he got a chance to promise to invade Mexico.

Matthew Continetti: DeSantis started the debate well but seemed to fade into the background during the second half. He played it safe on abortion, Ukraine and Donald Trump. The other candidates practically ignored him. Perhaps that’s because they believe they no longer have to go through him to face Trump.

Michelle Cottle: A fine if unremarkable performance. Ran through his MAGA greatest hits. Somehow came across as both robotic and tightly wound. (Such vigorous head bobbing!) He’d clearly been practicing sprinkling personal stories into his patter — though the one about the woman who survived multiple abortion attempts was bizarre. And can someone please do something about that creepy smile?

Ross Douthat: He showed intensity, absorbed no serious attacks, stuck to a message designed for a front-running and unifying campaign — but he isn’t the front-runner, and he desperately needs more deftness and finesse.

David French: DeSantis was mid, at best. The only answers that truly stood out were his painful delay before acknowledging the obvious fact that Mike Pence did his duty on Jan. 6 and his bizarre promise that he would “use force” against “drug pushers” and leave them “stone cold dead.” He tried to pander to MAGA, but he was sitting next to the master, Ramaswamy, and he paled in comparison.

Michelle Goldberg: Being a sinister authoritarian who promises extrajudicial assassinations at the border isn’t going to hurt DeSantis in a Republican primary, but his total lack of charisma probably will. Even with maximum pandering to the far right, he didn’t have anything like the breakout moment he needs to revive his flaccid campaign.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: DeSantis was at his best when he emphasized his record in Florida during Covid, which he could and should be running on. He did not utter the word “woke” at any point during his many canned-seeming responses; he may be ready to move on from that talking point, but the same may not be true of G.O.P. primary voters.

Daniel McCarthy: He sounded like a nominee and smartly avoided squabbling with others. Sharp focus criticizing President Biden and promoting his own record, though he seems tempted to make 2024 about refighting Covid battles. His skepticism about increasing aid to Ukraine pairs awkwardly with saber-rattling toward Mexico, yet a Donald Trump who campaigned on “take the oil” observed restraint as president.

Bret Stephens: Bye, Ron.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (5)

Tim Scott
Average: 4.2/10

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Jamelle Bouie: Not as much of a nonentity as Hutchinson, but not as charismatic and clearheaded as his fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley. Still, he’s one of the more obviously electable candidates on the stage and you can imagine a world in which he makes it to a national ticket. Is it this world, though?

Gail Collins: Best at energetic hand gestures.

Matthew Continetti: This debate offered Scott an opportunity to establish himself as the alternative to DeSantis and, eventually, Trump. He didn’t seize the moment. He played it safe, relying on lines from his bio-heavy stump speech.

Michelle Cottle: His usual happy warrior shtick didn’t convey especially well in this showcase. He didn’t make any missteps and he had some nice, if not terribly memorable, moments. But it was all a little meh.

Ross Douthat: His joke about Southerners talking slowly was too apt; he never really got past the windup phase of his attempts at oratory and felt like a nonfactor.

David French: This was not the debate that Tim Scott needed. His decency shines through, but why does such a fundamentally decent man have such trouble speaking the plain truth about Donald Trump? The real story of the Trump indictments isn’t the “weaponization of the Department of Justice,” and his extended soliloquy on that very argument was a low point of the night.

Michelle Goldberg: Meh.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Tim Scott sounded a sweet note of optimism — which was a welcome break from the negativity that dominated the stage and American political discourse more generally — including this line making an undervalued point about economic growth and the environment: “America has cut our carbon footprint in half in the last 25 years.”

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Daniel McCarthy: Saying “if God made you a man, you play sports against men” by itself probably won Scott a couple of points in the polls. He smartly made China not just a foreign-policy issue but a jobs issue, which along with his talk of completing the border wall gives him an opening with populist voters.

Bret Stephens: Pleasant, optimistic and determinedly inoffensive. He’s running to be Donald Trump’s next vice president.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (6)

Vivek Ramaswamy
Average: 3.6/10

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Jamelle Bouie: Vivek Ramaswamy had more personality than basically anyone else onstage. He was also rude, disruptive and astoundingly arrogant, as if he had been plucked directly out of a high school Model United Nations competition. More seriously, Ramaswamy has the most acute version of the problem that plagued most of the candidates, namely, that if he’s such a fan of Donald Trump — so much so that he has modeled his political style off the former president — why is he running against him? He wasn’t asked the question, and I’d be surprised if he had an answer that wasn’t just a reference to the fact that he’s young.

Gail Collins: He’s young! He’s rich! And boy, is he irritating!

Matthew Continetti: Ramaswamy established himself as the MAGA representative and Trump surrogate. He spoke for, and won applause from, Trump’s followers in the America First movement. If you don’t live in MAGA world, his reality score for this purpose is a 5, and you were likely put off by Ramaswamy’s glib manner and condescending tone, and cheered when Christie, Pence and especially Haley exposed the depth of his inexperience and foolishness on foreign policy.

Michelle Cottle: He grabbed the spotlight, and people will be talking about him. But, dude, what was up with the glib, smarmy, smug, callow, obnoxious, overcaffeinated tech bro vibe? I’m sure plenty of folks loved his in-your-face, burn-the-system-down, anti-establishment pep. But I’m also confident that at least as many found him insufferable — women in particular.

Ross Douthat: A love-it-or-hate-it performance, with most of the hatred coming from his fellow candidates. He speaks for a plausible G.O.P. future but maybe not in a style the average G.O.P. voter is ready for just yet.

David French: He’s a zero to me, but he might be a 10 to MAGA. In the pre-Trump G.O.P., pundits would already be writing the pre-mortems. The youngster experienced his reality check. First Christie, then (more effectively) Pence and Haley, exposed him on live television. But he rivaled Pence as the center of attention and speaks MAGA even more fluently than DeSantis. Everything I dislike about him, MAGA loves, and he looked more like Trump’s heir than DeSantis did.

Michelle Goldberg: Trump’s stand-in carried himself like the front-runner and captured the dystopian mood of much of the Republican base: “We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war.” But he came off like a lightweight in his exchanges with Haley.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Ramaswamy brought Big Debate Team Energy to the stage, for good and ill. He ping-ponged manically between genuinely exciting envelope-pushing policy ideas and completely bananas, unconstitutional proposals. (Where exactly you place that dividing line is up to you, but I enjoyed his Reaganite desire to abolish a variety of federal agencies, including the Department of Education, while I found his zeal to close and militarize the southern border deeply troubling.)

Daniel McCarthy: He has no experience in politics, but he has a greater knack for engaging audiences than any of his rivals — including by saying things that shock the old guard. Attendees seemed to prefer Haley’s Ukraine position, but on that and much else Ramaswamy offers Republicans a real choice, not another echo.

Bret Stephens: Preening and obnoxious; he seems to think he’s Jesus.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (7)

Doug Burgum
Average: 2.9/10

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Jamelle Bouie: If nominees were still chosen by party elites in smoke-filled rooms, Doug Burgum would be a shoo-in for vice president. He’s both normal and perfectly inoffensive, which is more than you can say for some of the people onstage in Milwaukee.

Gail Collins: Well, at least he was standing after that Achilles’ tendon tear.

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Matthew Continetti: Burgum has an impressive record as a businessman and governor. He displayed grit in showing up for the debate despite an injured leg. But he’s not a serious contender and his answers, while substantive and reasonable, diverted attention from the candidates who have more plausible paths to confronting Donald Trump.

Michelle Cottle: Genial guy. Made sure every single person watching understood that he is from a small town. But clearly out of his depth. Even he looked surprised at times that he was on that stage.

Ross Douthat: He proved this much: He has a lot more charisma than Asa Hutchinson.

David French: Burgum was fine, but fine just isn’t good enough when your polling numbers are so small they can’t be seen with an electron microscope.

Michelle Goldberg: I had no idea why he was running for president before the debate and no idea after it.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: I do love a man with a pocket Constitution.

Daniel McCarthy: He successfully defined himself as the candidate of small-government, states-oriented conservatism. If he avoided any serious pitfalls, though, he also didn’t make a convincing case that he’s the strongest candidate for any particular issue, let alone the best potential nominee. He’s big on China, but so is everyone else.

Bret Stephens: China Town Small Energy Shower Leg China Salad Word.

Opinion | Our Writers Pick the Winners, Losers and ‘the Star of the Evening’ From the First Republican Debate (8)

Asa Hutchinson
Average: 2.1/10

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Jamelle Bouie: I honestly forgot he was there.

Gail Collins: In post-debate discussions, he should be earning at least 40 seconds.

Matthew Continetti: Hutchinson is a principled conservative who’s right that former president Trump’s conduct presents a potentially fatal challenge to the G.O.P. But he really shouldn’t have been on the stage, and his style of delivery put me to sleep.

Michelle Cottle: If you can remember a single thing that the former governor of Arkansas said, you deserve a free snow cone.

Ross Douthat: Hopefully a one-and-done appearance for an irrelevant candidate.

David French: I know full well that Asa Hutchinson didn’t move one inch closer to the nomination tonight, but he deserves credit for speaking the plain truth about Donald Trump.

Michelle Goldberg: He served warm milk to a crowd braying for red meat.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Hutchinson entered the race with the clearest anti-Trump stance, and his best moment of the debate was when he directly connected the importance of the rule of law to Trump’s disrespect for the justice system and the Constitution. However, the phrase “as former head of the D.E.A.” should be automatically disqualifying for the presidency.

Daniel McCarthy: He didn’t embarrass himself but was completely negligible, with no distinct philosophy or issues. Any Republican governor could have said the same things he did.

Bret Stephens: He only gets a 1 because it isn’t often that you get a palindrome in politics.

Jamelle Bouie, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, David French, Michelle Goldberg and Bret Stephens are Times columnists. Mr. Douthat is also a host of “Matter of Opinion.”

Matthew Continetti (@continetti) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism” and a co-host of the Commentary magazine podcast.

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Michelle Cottle (@mcottle) is a member of the Times’s editorial board and a host of “Matter of Opinion.”

Katherine Mangu-Ward (@kmanguward) is the editor in chief of Reason magazine.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of “Modern Age: A Conservative Review.”


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