The Republican presidential candidates clashed on Wednesday night over military support for Ukraine, government spending, abortion policy and the behavior of former President Donald J. Trump — who declined to participate — while uniting to assail the agenda of President Biden in the first primary debate of the 2024 election cycle.
The debate, which grew contentious and fiery at times, underscored the rifts within the Republican Party and the sharp policy shifts that the United States could experience if Mr. Biden is defeated by one of his Republican challengers next year. The candidates generally painted a dark picture of a United States gripped by inflation and an influx of immigrants. But fault lines emerged over how forcefully to confront Russia, how far abortion restrictions should go, the causes of climate change and the fate of Mr. Trump, who was described by one moderator as the “elephant not in the room.”
Although the candidates are still refining their policy platforms, the debate offered the first glimpse at how their agendas would differ from one another and from a second Trump administration.
What to do about Trump
Most of the candidates responded cautiously when asked if they would support Mr. Trump if he is convicted of any crimes but wins the party’s nomination. But the most direct clash over the issue was between Vivek Ramaswamy, the upstart businessman, and Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey.
Mr. Ramaswamy emerged as an ardent defender of Mr. Trump, calling him the best president of the 21st century and accusing Mr. Biden of sending a police force after him. Mr. Christie, who was met with boos from the audience, responded that Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results were beneath the office of the presidency and that he would always uphold the Constitution.
The debate then shifted to the question of whether Mr. Trump should be pardoned of any crimes. Mr. Ramaswamy said unequivocally that if elected, he would pardon the former president, while Mike Pence, Mr. Trump’s former vice president, suggested that he would consider it if Mr. Trump showed contrition for his actions.
The line of questioning was especially tricky for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has tried to steer clear of commenting on Mr. Trump’s legal troubles. When pressed to answer whether Mr. Pence did the correct thing when he certified the 2020 election, Mr. DeSantis eventually acknowledged that the former vice president did his duty and then quickly tried to move on.
The uncertain fate of Ukraine aid
The stakes of the presidential election are particularly high for Ukraine, which is heavily reliant on U.S. support to fend off Russia’s invasion. Without offering many specifics, Mr. Trump has suggested that he would broker a deal to quickly end the war, and on Wednesday his rivals were deeply divided over whether to continue providing Ukraine with military and economic aid.
The argument over Ukraine highlighted how the views within the Republican Party over foreign policy have diverged between the more anti-interventionist, “American First” wing and the camp that wants to extend American influence around the world and promote democracy.
Mr. DeSantis said that additional support for Ukraine should be contingent on Europe’s providing more aid. Mr. Ramaswamy said that he would not support an increase in funding, calling the situation “disastrous” and declaring that the money should be redirected to protect the U.S. southern border.
However, Mr. Pence, Mr. Christie and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, offered forceful cases for defending Ukraine. Mr. Christie described the atrocities that he saw during a visit to Ukraine this month, and Mr. Pence said that the United States needed to stop President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia from spreading totalitarianism around the world.
Ms. Haley called Mr. Putin a murderer and said that allowing Ukraine to fall would empower other American adversaries, such as China.
Putting limits on abortion
Abortion continues to be a fraught topic for Republicans. They have been generally supportive of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year, which eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, but they have differing opinions about whether anti-abortion measures should be left to the states and how far they should go.
Republicans are under pressure from anti-abortion activists to endorse a 15-week federal ban; however, several Republicans oppose such bans.
Mr. DeSantis demurred when asked about whether he would support a six-week federal ban and criticized Democrats for backing abortions later in pregnancy. Ms. Haley described the notion of a federal ban as unrealistic, suggesting that Republicans would never have sufficient votes to pass such legislation. She also called for lawmakers to stop “demonizing” people over the issue and work toward a consensus around adoption and contraception policies.
Other candidates, such as Mr. Pence, took more ardent positions on abortion. Supporting a 15-week federal ban — which he has challenged his rivals to embrace — the former vice president called curbing abortions a “moral issue” that should not be left to the states. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina echoed that sentiment, saying that it would be “unethical” for a president to be supportive of states such as California and New York that allow abortions further along in pregnancy.
The biggest area of agreement among the Republican candidates was on the economy, which they said was failing because of higher prices and interest rates that have made it harder to buy houses and cars.
None of the candidates have released detailed economic plans, but all of them are broadly supportive of extending the 2017 tax cuts that are scheduled to expire in 2025 and rolling back regulations. Onstage, they also agreed that the national debt, which has topped $32 trillion, is a serious problem facing the economy.
Republicans usually blame big-spending Democrats for the national debt, but on Wednesday night Ms. Haley pointed a finger at members of her own party. She called out Republicans for passing more than $2 trillion in pandemic spending in 2020 and said that Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence, Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Scott have all backed policies that have added to the national debt.
Calling for spending cuts and an end to earmarks, Ms. Haley said it was disingenuous to point to Democrats as solely responsible for the nation’s debt burden.
“The truth is that Biden did not do this to us,” Ms. Haley said. “Our Republicans did this to us, too.”