3 takeaways from Ron DeSantis’ Republican primary debate performance

He stuck to familiar lines all night, but didn’t always stick to answering moderators’ questions.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speak at the same time during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speak at the same time during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. [ MORRY GASH | AP ]
Published Aug. 24|Updated Aug. 25

With former President Donald Trump on the sidelines, Gov. Ron DeSantis entered Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate as the presumed star of the show, positioned at center stage due to his solid second-place polling.

As the night went on, however, it felt like the spotlight had shifted.

Other candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, got more air time than DeSantis, who didn’t jump into as many spirited back-and-forths as they did.

According to the New York Times, DeSantis was outpaced by Pence, Ramaswamy and Christie when it came to speaking time. DeSantis talked for about 10 minutes and 22 seconds during the nearly two-hour-long debate. Pence spoke for 12:37, Ramaswamy for 11:47, and Christie for 11:22.

Here are three key takeaways from DeSantis’ performance at Wednesday’s debate.

He wasn’t the No. 1 target on stage

Early on, it looked like other candidates would strike out at DeSantis — starting with Ramaswamy.

DeSantis’ first two comments in the debate both included recycled slogans he’s used previously, first about how American “decline is a choice.” That mantra is something DeSantis has been using since his January inauguration speech. Later, DeSantis said Trump should have canned infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You bring Fauci in ... and you say Anthony, you are fired,” DeSantis said, loudly but somewhat stiffly, to applause. That, too, is a line he’s used recently.

Ramaswamy then quipped: “Now that everyone has their memorized, pre-prepared slogans out of the way we can actually have a real discussion now.”

Ramaswamy then referenced a strategy memo from a pro-DeSantis super PAC reported by the New York Times — a memo that encouraged him to “take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy during the debate.

“Do you want a super PAC puppet or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth?” Ramaswamy said.

Later, Christie echoed Ramaswamy’s comments, following a DeSantis response with this: “I’d like to answer and not give a pre-canned speech.”

But more often than not, it was Ramaswamy, Christie and Pence going after one another all night, with DeSantis absorbing few direct blows — and, as a result, getting less time from moderators to respond.

One of the few candidates to hit DeSantis on policy was former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who mentioned DeSantis’ spending votes while serving in Congress, and criticized his description of the war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute.”

DeSantis was given a chance to respond but didn’t address the comment. Instead, he said the first obligation of the president “is to defend our country and its people,” including at the U.S. border with Mexico. He said he wouldn’t send troops to Ukraine, but to the border, and he would declare the situation at the border a national emergency.

He repeatedly dodged questions — including on Trump

DeSantis was asked to answer if he believed in climate change. He instead pivoted to blast the “corporate media” for being lax on Biden during the Maui wildfires.

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DeSantis was asked if he would sign a federal six-week abortion ban if he was president. He didn’t answer, saying he was “going to stand on the side of life.”

And he was asked if Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, when he resisted Trump’s pressure to overturn the 2020 election.

DeSantis instead pivoted to talk about the “weaponization” of the Justice Department.

“That’s not the question,” host Bret Baier said. “Are you going to answer the question?”

“I know,” DeSantis said, before talking about “reversing the decline of our country” and talking about his service record as a Navy lawyer in Iraq.

“You didn’t answer the question,” host Martha MacCallum said.

Pence then put DeSantis directly on the spot.

“I think the American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day,” Pence said. “So answer the question.”

“I’ve answered this before,” DeSantis quickly responded. “Mike did his duty, I’ve got no beef with him.”

(Earlier, when the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would still support Trump as the Republican nominee if he was convicted in a court of law, DeSantis hesitated, looking around before raising his.)

He recycled campaign talking points verbatim

Onstage, DeSantis emphasized some of his core policy points: reversing the “decline” of the country economically, promising to block any future pandemic shutdowns and talking tough about illegal immigration.

What stood out was how often he used lines pulled directly from previous speeches — including “decline is a choice” and “Anthony, you are fired” — to make his points. That, as much as anything, may have prevented him from jumping into spontaneous debates with Pence, Christie and Ramaswamy.

At one point, asked about crime in Miami, DeSantis pivoted by saying that crime statewide is down — and noting, without mentioning their names, that he suspended from office Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell.

“There’s one guy in this entire country that’s ever done anything about that — me, when we had two of these district attorneys in Florida ... who said they wouldn’t do their job,” he said. “I removed them from their posts; they are gone.”

He said he would continue to fight illegal immigration, repeating his pledge that suspected drug smugglers crossing the border should be shot “stone cold dead” on sight.

And when discussing education policy, he delivered another frequently used line: “We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country.”

In his closing statement, DeSantis touted his Navy service, mentioned his three children, and promised to “send Joe Biden back to his basement,” another frequent refrain. Then, as other candidates stood around shaking hands, he walked off stage.

• • •

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