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Border, abortion and school choice: GOP candidates spar in first presidential debate

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Eight Republican candidates trailing former President Donald Trump in the polls vied for second place Wednesday in the first primary debate.

The candidates traded barbs and one-liners in a high-stakes contest at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each of the candidates touched on some of the nation’s hot-button issues, including crime, abortion and climate change. Interruptions were widespread. Many candidates talked over their peers, at times making it difficult to hear what was said. But the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border brought out some of the strongest rhetoric of the evening.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would authorize U.S. forces to cross the border to go after clandestine fentanyl labs and other criminal activity in Mexico.

“So when they are coming across, yes, we are going to use lethal force,” he said.

Former Vice President Mike Pence stood on his record at the southern border. He said he negotiated “Remain in Mexico,” which required some asylum seekers to return to Mexico to await their asylum hearing. Pence said he also negotiated for funding to build a border wall.

“As president of the United States, I will engage Mexico the same and we will partner with the Mexican military and we will hunt down and destroy the cartels that are claiming lives in the United States of America,” Pence said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he’d stop illegal border crossings and make sure those who have crossed illegally aren’t rewarded.

“We have to have law and order in this country,” he said.

Christie said that besides securing the border, the U.S. must go after China for shipping chemicals used to make fentanyl to Mexican cartels.

But the border wasn’t the only issue that riled up the candidates.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy called climate change a “hoax” and called the rest of the candidates on the stage “bought and paid for.” That made him a target. Pence retorted, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” while glancing at Ramaswamy.

“We don’t need to bring in a rookie, we don’t need to bring in people without experience,” Pence said.

Christie said Ramaswamy sounded like “ChatGTP.” At one time or another, nearly every candidate piled on Ramaswamy.

Former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took a stand on abortion that frustrated several candidates. She said getting enough votes for a federal 15-week abortion ban was unrealistic, and the focus should be on banning late-term abortions.

“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortion shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said he wouldn’t support a federal ban on abortion.

“I’m a pro-life governor of a very pro-life state, and this issue is, of course, very important,” he said. “But I am on the record, and I stand behind, that we should not have a federal abortion ban. We should not. And the reason why we shouldn’t is very simple: It’s the 10th Amendment in the Constitution.”

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott faced questions about his spending record.

“There’s no doubt that during the Trump administration, we were dealing with the COVID virus, we spent more money,” he said. “But here’s what happened at the end of our time in the majority, we had low unemployment, record low unemployment, three and a half percent for the majority of the population, a 70-year low for women. African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians had an all-time low, but our inflation was at 2%.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a point not to raise his hand when asked if he would support Trump if the former president was convicted on criminal charges and becomes the Republican presidential nominee.

Scott took aim at public school teachers’ unions when asked about education.

“The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers’ unions,” he said. “They are standing in the door house of our kids locking them into failing schools and locking them out of the greatest future they could have.”

Several candidates emphasized school choice as an answer to the nation’s waning student test scores and the need to curb the power of teachers’ unions.

Trump decided not to participate in Wednesday’s debate. He cited his lead in the polls for skipping the debate. Trump’s sit-down interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson was released Wednesday night at the same time as the debate.

The Center Square Voters’ Voice Poll, done by Noble Predictive Insights, found that Trump is far ahead of his Republican competitors. The poll found that 53% of surveyed Republicans support Trump, followed by 18% supporting DeSantis. Pence and Ramaswamy came in third and fourth place with 7% and 6% support, respectively.

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