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Hutchinson shuns fireworks in first GOP presidential primary debate

UCA professor notes the demeanor of a ‘classic conservative’ by Alex Thomas | August 24, 2023 at 6:10 a.m.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday in Milwaukee. (AP/Morry Gash)

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson's showing at the first Republican presidential debate was much quieter than that of his fellow candidates.

As White House contenders threw barbs and interrupted each other during Wednesday's event at Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum, Hutchinson stood at his lectern  at the left end of the debate stage, staying out of the hostility between candidates.

Hutchinson's appearance at the Fox News-hosted debate served as a chance for the former governor to boost his name recognition in front of a nationwide televised audience. In his first remarks on stage, Hutchinson highlighted his resume, including his eight years as a "pro-life governor from a conservative state that has a conservative record."

"I've been a federal prosecutor. I've served our country in terms of being head of the DEA and Homeland Security in times of crisis," he added." That's experience that is important for the future of our country to be the president of the United States that can lead with positive solutions and be held accountable."

Much of the two-hour debate was punctuated by candidates attacking each other and battling the debate's moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

"The audience wanted a rumble," Skip Rutherford, dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette following the debate.

"They wanted a rumble more than they wanted a debate and, clearly, they liked when people started exchanging commentary back and forth."

Heather Yates, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas, wasn't surprised by the debate's raucous nature.

"That's always a feature of a debate, especially in a primary field that's going to be large," she explained. "When you've got a primary field that's more than three candidates, you're going to have more contentious moments, [and] some of those more tense exchanges, and it gets away from the moderators."

Hutchinson's biggest moments came during the debate's second hour, when the former governor highlighted his efforts addressing border security as part of the George W. Bush administration and expanding computer education as governor.

"There would be lethal force used by the Border Patrol and law enforcement as needed to protect the border. Absolutely," Hutchinson said.

"We cannot be successful going against the cartel unless we bring in Mexico as a partner. We have to use economic pressure to accomplish that."

Hutchinson described his push of computer education in Arkansas through the lens of the United States' relationship with China.

"As president of the United States, I will make sure we go from 51% of our schools offering computer science to every school in rural areas and urban areas offering computer science for the benefit of our kids and we can compete with China in terms of technology," he said.

Yates said when Hutchinson spoke, he presented himself well, showing himself to be a "classic conservative."

"If his goal was to define himself for the American audience, he did a very good job with presenting his political resume," she said. "He delivered a results-driven resume leading with his accomplishments and elevating the policies of Arkansas."

She added as Hutchinson continues his campaign, he may need to consider a more "assertive" approach in talking about his background and platform to stick out more among the field.

"We're inevitably going to see some reshuffling," she noted regarding polling. "Even if [Hutchinson] gets a couple points bump, that is a good sign. That is a victory lap."

The leading Republican in the race did not participate in the debate. Former President Donald Trump skipped the event, arguing he should not have to participate in any debates given his front runner status and known record as president.

Baier described Trump as "the elephant not in the room."

Hutchinson backed Trump during the 2016 and 2020 elections, but broke away as Trump made unverified assertions regarding his loss to Joe Biden. Hutchinson has described the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol as a disqualifying condition against a second Trump presidency.

To participate in Wednesday's debate, candidates had to sign a pledge promising to support the party's nominee. Hutchinson found fault with the pledge, but signed the commitment, saying he does not believe Trump will win the race.

When Baier asked candidates to raise their hand if they would support Trump if he won the nomination, Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did not do so.

Hutchinson mentioned a legal theory suggesting Trump could be disqualified from holding office under the 14th Amendment because of insurrection, drawing jeers from the audience.

"I'm not going to support somebody who's been convicted of a serious felony or who is disqualified under our Constitution," he said.

The former governor previously urged Trump to end his campaign amid multiple criminal indictments involving allegations of falsifying business records, mishandling classified documents, and efforts to change the previous presidential election's outcome.

Trump took a shot at Hutchinson during an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The conservative media figure posted the interview on X -- the platform formerly known as Twitter -- as the debate began.

"He's weak and pathetic," Trump said of Hutchinson. "I never understood the guy. Never knew him."

Trump has also called Hutchinson "Aida" on his Truth Social media platform. He opted not to explain the nickname to Carlson, saying he didn't "want to get myself in a little trouble."

The next Republican National Committee debate is scheduled for Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. While Hutchinson qualified for the first debate on Sunday -- surpassing the 40,000 unique donor threshold and meeting the 1% polling mark -- he will need to reach 50,000 unique donors and 3% in polls to make the next one.

Rutherford said Hutchinson's next challenge is boosting his standing in polls.

"Did the debate get him there? I don't know. I don't think it did," he said. "But, we'll have to wait and see as this thing sorts out."

  photo  Republican presidential candidates former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (from left), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel on Wednesday, in Milwaukee. (AP/Morry Gash)

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