MILWAUKEE — If we came to the debate last night to see some contrasts between the candidates and to see fireworks — we were not disappointed. On issue after issue from a federal ban for abortion to Ukraine and Russia, we saw the candidates make their cases for their differences, and it was more exciting to me than a football game. Politics is my sport of choice.

The Crowd

Being in the room at the first Republican debate of the season was electric as key activists, donors and elected officials got prepared to cheer on their favorite candidates. Some were there just to cheer for their favorite candidate — friends and colleagues of the candidates. Some people were there to cheer on their top two or three choices. Others were there as full-fledge Trump supporters who wanted to see the competition — like Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, his longtime girlfriend, who made their way right in front of me.

Others were just there for the overall Republican team in a “wait and see” mentality on who might arise from the ashes of the process — not wanting anyone to know what they really thought. Former governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley had by far the largest crowd of dedicated supporters in the room. Her campaign did a great job of getting key supporters there and getting them prepped to be loud and proud. Vivek’s strong far right stage group made their voices heard as well.

The Candidates

Some of the candidates came to spar with the others — knowing they had to have breakout moments to make a dent in the polls. Former Vice President Mike Pence came ready to rumble — going after the other frontrunners from the moment the debate started. Almost shockingly to the people in the room who are used to his mild-mannered speech style normally. Vivek Ramaswamy came prepared with key phrases made for social media clips and an energy that was unavoidable.

Gov. Ron DeSantis had to look strong, confident, and like a real person and in many ways he did, but at other times he looked at the camera with a weird look on his face. Sen. Tim Scott, though an effective senator in Washington D.C. looked like he was a deer in the headlights, not even smiling or waving when he was introduced and lack luster the entire night missing opportunity after opportunity especially during the crime discussion to tell his compelling story and explain why he was on the stage.

The Anthem and the Prayer

Before the debate even started there were pre-debate ceremonies with incredible Christian vocalist and songwriter — Natalie Grant — singing one of the most incredible renditions of the national anthem that I have ever heard in one of the most beautiful dresses I have ever seen her wear. Check out a part of it on my social media accounts.

Then an invocation by North Carolina National Committeewoman Kyshia Brassington who prayed for our children and grandchildren, against the “woke agenda,” and for the people of Hawaii — but ended it with a sheepish in “God’s name we pray.” Definitely not a Franklin Graham invocation ending with the “name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

Getting Started

With Fox News Hosts, Martha McCallum and Brett Baier starting off talking about the new breakout song in our nation — “Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony, many in the media wondered why they would start the debate that way. The moderators went directly to the most important issue in most people’s minds — their pocketbook and inflation — and they did it with a new cultural icon to look relevant. As groceries are going up, clothes are going up, and gas continues to be high — they wanted to know everyone ideas’ on how to rescue the economy from “Biden-onomics.” It provided Gov. DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former Gov. Chris Christie, among others, some strong opening statements against the current administration.

I thought it was very interesting that the first person to mention “God” in the debate, I believe, was Vivek Ramaswamy — a Hindu — who had a huge billboard on the highway leading back to the airport from downtown Milwaukee that said “God is Real” in big block letters with his smaller logo “Vivek 2024” under it.

Many Did Well

Many of the candidates had a good debate night.

Vice President Mike Pence made the case that the Trump-Pence record is unmatched in results from the Supreme Court nominees, the tax cuts, and the border impact under a Trump administration. He also got a huge win — in that almost everyone on the stage said he did the right thing on January 6th certifying the election — and looked incredibly presidential as he talked about foreign policy, pro-life policy, and border and immigration.

Gov. Nikki Haley took on the issue of women’s sports and how the transgender craziness is hurting women, she defended our most important ally in the Middle East — Israel, and responded to the other candidates on the stage with grit — speaking against China, Biden’s economic policies, and against Vivek when he said that all the candidates on the stage outside of himself “are bought and paid for.” She was tough, strong, and I believe shocked people at how presidential she appeared.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is the leader and hero when it comes to the governmental response to the COVID pandemic. This is his issue to own and there is no one better on it. He slammed Anthony Fauci and spoke about freedom and how we should never let government shutdowns happen again. He was strong on education calling out “indoctrination in our schools” and sharing his belief in school choice in Florida and nationally. He was strong overall and many should imagine him as commander-in-chief.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy had a great night — calm, cool, and collected as a virtual unknown until the last few months of this national race. He captured people’s attention when he was the only one that boldly raised his hand against more funding in Ukraine with Gov. DeSantis half raising his hand. He looked extremely comfortable on stage throughout the whole debate speaking as though he had done fifty debates before that point. Though many people in the room disagreed with him on many of his statements, he won respect for his closing statement that got right to the point — “God is real. There are two genders. Fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity. Reverse racism is racism. An open border is not a border. Parents determine the education of their children,” and more.

Boos and Laughs

The biggest boos came from the crowd directed at former Gov. Asa Hutchinson over remarks concerning Trump, when Gov. Chris Christie went on the offense several times against other candidates and the absent President Trump, and Vivek Ramaswamy when he mentioned “revolution” repeating a sentiment he had said at his pre-debate party — “I stand with you on the side of revolution.”

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota had some funny lines from the far edge of the stage as he made fun of the smallness of his state and had a few minutes where he stood out on China — one of the key issues of our time that wasn’t covered enough in my opinion.

On the Fight for Life

For people of faith — the sanctity of life issue is one that most of us care deeply about. In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned — there is a national debate going on about whether Republicans should work for a federal ban on abortion from Washington D.C. or just leave it to the states to work through. The debate on this issue played out in front of a national audience as the fact that the pro-life community all over our nation is divided on how to move forward.

With groups like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America pushing for a plan from GOP candidates for president and Congress to make statements on this important issue — it became very clear in the audience that Vice President Pence had the strongest case for a federal ban. Gov. Nikki Haley was making it clear that she thought it was a very hard hill to climb and that for the sake of the national electorate in a general election that the party needed to leave it alone for the states to sort out.

“70% of the American people support banning abortion” — Pence said.

Haley’s rebuttal, “But 70% of the Senate does not support this ban.”

Gov. Doug Burgum made his case that we should not have a federal abortion ban from a federalism argument — even as he had signed a six-week abortion ban in his state. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he signed “30 pro-life pieces of legislation while I was governor” but would not be pursuing a federal ban.

Pence won the debate for the national pro-life movement that believes that it is necessary to protect babies in the womb all over the nation from Texas to California with a federal ban, but the rest of the candidates who spoke out showed how hard that road is going to be.

Support for Mike Pence’s Action and Funding Ukraine

Other interesting moments that stood out for me during the debate was when the candidates were all asked the question on whether Mike Pence did the right thing certifying the election on January 6th. Senator Tim Scott was the first to answer the question with, “Absolutely.” Christie, Haley, and Burgum quickly agreed with Scott. Of course, Asa Hutchinson agreed though he didn’t get to speak, just nodding his head. Gov. DeSantis danced around the issue at first — but then said “Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him.”

As mentioned before, only one person raised their hand that they would not support more funding to Ukraine — libertarian leading Ramaswamy — with Gov. DeSantis making a reference with a halfway raised hand that he was at 50/50. Chris Christie laid out the plight of the Ukrainians of thousands of children being kidnapped by the Russians and trained to fight against their own countrymen and then made the case for U.S. intervention. Then the former ambassador to the U.N. under Trump — Nikki Haley went after Vivek saying, “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”

Whom Did This Debate Help and Harm?

As far as a debate performance only — I believe Haley, Pence, and Vivek really helped themselves for the future of this race. Gov. DeSantis held steady, and his support should grow. For the people voting on the COVID response, DeSantis is their man and I don’t believe he lost ground with his performance. Chris Christie scored his points and had a good night, but I doubt it will translate to more support as his views on many issues, including his hostility against President Trump, just doesn’t translate into votes. My prediction is that Sen. Tim Scott will lose support, not looking strong enough on a national stage. We will see if Burgum and Hutchinson even make it to the next debate.

As far as the candidate that wasn’t on the stage — Donald J. Trump — we will see what the coming weeks bring and whether voters hold it against him that he didn’t participate in the public forum.

An Unfiltered Forum

In the end — the debate experience was one of passionate people who care deeply about America, whether we believe with them on every issue. It was a great forum for the American people to see them unfiltered.

My final takeaway as a woman who has run for Congress in a field of eight and then being one of two that made it to the runoff ballot is that no one understands the pressure on a woman being on a stage surrounded by very capable men. As Gov. Haley had her makeup and hair touched up during every break as the men stood around and chit-chatted, I was thankful that we live in the nation where we all can participate. Though the world of politics is easier for some of us than others, we all have a voice, a vote and prayers that we can pray for this great nation. It is our responsibility to take these opportunities seriously for the sake of the generations that follow.


Bunni Pounds is president and founder of Christians Engaged — a ministry activating the Body of Christ to pray, vote, and engage regularly. Formerly a congressional candidate and 16-year political consultant, she is a motivational speaker and preacher of the gospel. She is the author of the soon-to-be released book Jesus and Politics: One Woman’s Walk with God in a Mudslinging Profession.

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