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At first Republican debate, White House hopefuls spar, largely on domestic policy

In one rather dramatic moment, Nikki Haley accused Vivek Ramaswamy of not being a supporter of Israel.

Candidates at the first Republican presidential debate for the 2024 elections, held in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023. Source: Screenshot.
Candidates at the first Republican presidential debate for the 2024 elections, held in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023. Source: Screenshot.

About 80 minutes into the two-hour Fox News Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, the State of Israel came up.

Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina, was going after entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who had an early target on his back after denouncing several of the other seven candidates on the stage. (Former President Donald Trump did not participate.)

Several candidates cited Ramaswamy’s lack of political experience. The youngest candidate at age 38, he was the only one who did not raise his hand when asked who would continue to fund Ukraine against Russia.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, said Ramaswamy’s posture and lack of experience recalled then-Sen. Barack Obama when he ran for office, suggesting that a president Ramaswamy would be equally disastrous.

Haley slammed Ramaswamy for saying he would cut funding to Israel. “You have no foreign-policy experience, and it shows,” she said.

Ramaswamy said that the United States and Israel have a friendship. “Friends help each other stand on their own two feet,” he said. He said he admires Israel’s tough border policies, its national identity and the Iron Dome air-defense system.

At one point, DeSantis fleetingly mentioned Jewish businessman and philanthropist George Soros, who funds numerous left-wing political causes.

The first Republican candidate debate, held in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, otherwise largely addressed domestic issues: debt, education, federal spending, inflation, the Southern border, the military, the Supreme Court, the economy, crime and the recent wildfires in Maui.

The topic of abortion took up significant time in the first hour of the debate, with the candidates getting heated. As the sole woman on the stage, Haley spoke of fertility and adoption, alluding to the issue as related to individual health care. She stressed humanizing the issue rather than demonizing it.

The eight candidates—Christie, Haley, Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson (who wore an Israeli flag pin), former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)—often talked over and at one another. The candidates were mostly polite, but the debate clearly demonstrated differences in temperament and often in policies.

Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, the Fox News moderators, opened with a video of Oliver Anthony’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which has drawn 1.5 million likes on YouTube. Their first few questions centered on themes in the song, although they and the candidates did not mention that Anthony has been associated with anti-Israel conspiracy theories.

Trump was mentioned a few times but was not a major focus of the debate.

Many of the candidates directed attacks at U.S. President Joe Biden, 80, pointing out his age. When asked whether there should be a mental acuity test for presidents over 75, Pence replied: “It might be a good idea to have everyone in Washington pass a mental test.”

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