Republican debate winners and losers: Each candidate ranked

This was expected to be the Ron DeSantis debate. The Florida governor went into the night under pressure to produce a star turn that would reinvigorate his flatlining campaign.

His supporters might have hoped that the Harvard-educated lawyer would be able to dominate the stage and rain down blows on his opponents. In reality, many of his lines felt rehearsed and his delivery was stilted at times.

He was often eclipsed by Vivek Ramaswamy and missed vital opportunities to make his case to voters.

However, Mr DeSantis had been expected to take the most arrows on stage. That prediction failed to materialise. Instead, he avoided any major missteps and emerged relatively unscathed.

The 38-year-old entrepreneur made much of the fact that he wasn’t cramming for the debates, playing tennis shirtless and doing burpees in the run up to Wednesday night.

Having no formal debate experience worked in his favour and highlighted his central appeal – his authenticity.

A number of the candidates tried to dismiss the upstart challenger as a political novice by underscoring his lack of experience governing. But Mr Ramaswamy made a virtue of his outsider status, laughing off the jibes and landing a few of his own in turn.

The fast-talking, enthusiastic young multi-millionaire stole the spotlight and drew some of the loudest cheers and applause of the night.

Nikki Haley’s polling figures have been underwhelming but her campaign appeared to finally catch fire tonight.

Her aggressive support for Ukraine, and her denunciation of “murderer” Vladimir Putin underscored her foreign policy credentials.

Ms Haley was quick on her feet, landing a number of blows on Mr Ramaswamy and drawing applause when she told him: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

The only woman on stage, she gave an emotive response to a question on abortion, which deftly straddled the pro-life Republican base while shying away from endorsing harsh restrictions.

She called on Mike Pence, who supports a federal abortion ban, to be honest about the issue.

“Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes,” she said.

Whispers from other candidates’ teams suggest they were left equally impressed.

Chris Christie is no newcomer to presidential debates. In fact, his takedown of Marco Rubio in 2016 was credited with tanking the Florida senator’s campaign.

But despite the hype around him, Mr Christie failed to live up to his reputation as the biggest bully on the debate stage on Wednesday night.

While he delivered some of the funniest lines of the night – comparing Mr Ramaswamy to both Barack Obama and the AI software ChatGPT – none of them delivered a knockout blow.

Mr Christie, a former New Jersey governor, has made taking on his former friend Donald Trump a central plank of his White House bid.

But with the former president absent – and a pro-Trump audience drowning him out at times – Mr Christie’s appearance only served to demonstrate the futility of his campaign.

Mike Pence got plenty of public speaking and debate experience under his belt during his four years as vice president. And yet there were relatively low expectations for his performance going into the debate given his abysmal polling numbers. 

But he far surpassed them with a forceful, even aggressive, delivery which saw him clinch the most speaking time, according to a New York Times analysis.

It led Fox moderators to chastise the normally obsequious Mr Pence.

In several exchanges, he cited his experience in office to argue his case.

Mr Pence wanted to look like the elder statesman on stage and he succeeded. He got loud applause when he hammered political newcomer Mr Ramaswamy, saying: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training.”

Tim Scott’s “nice guy” persona makes effective debating a challenge.

The South Carolina senator stuck to his positive messaging campaign, but it fell flat when set against the raucous exchanges of the other candidates.

Mr Scott has an uplifting backstory and, as the only black Republican in the US Senate, a unique platform.

But he failed to seize the moment or use all of his time.

Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor, got the least speaking time of all eight candidates, according to a New York Times analysis.

Mr Hutchinson is a social conservative from a southern state who is also a prominent critic of Mr Trump.

But the former prosecutor failed to effectively argue his case against Mr Trump before a largely hostile audience.

It was a largely uneventful night for Doug Burgum. The North Dakota governor drummed up early interest in his campaign with an impressive launch video charting his career success from a small town farm labourer to a billionaire software executive. But he failed to tell that story to the audience, or really engage in any of the back-and-forth with his opponents.

The greatest drama surrounding Mr Burgum’s appearance came the day before the debate, when he suffered a tendon tear after playing basketball with his team.

He soldiered through two hours of standing on stage without crutches despite requiring hospital treatment before the event.

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