Eight candidates hit the stage for the first GOP presidential debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, opening up the chance to make an impact in a crowded field led by former President Donald Trump.
The debate, moderated by Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, focused on the economy, climate change, abortion, COVID-19 lockdowns, gun control, Trump’s upcoming trials, Ukraine funding, China, the southern border, education, presidential age and UFO encounters. Trump — the leading candidate in primary polls — chose to skip out on the debate, and sat down for an interview with Daily Caller co-founder Tucker Carlson instead.
The candidates frequently sparred with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who painted himself as the young, anti-establishment choice.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence were more prominent on the debate stage than expected, and the two traded blows with Ramaswamy on his Ukraine funding stance and age, respectively. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also battled for the spotlight, criticizing Trump for having conduct which he described as “beneath the office of President of the United States.”
On multiple occasions, the candidates talked over each other to attack or issue rebuttals, causing the moderators to plead for order. (RELATED: ‘That Means Your Time Is Up’: Debate Moderators Plead With Candidates To Shut Up So Others Can Talk)
“I can say this: There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen. There’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen, and it’s probably a bad combination,” Trump said. “We’re doing this interview, but we’ll get bigger ratings using this crazy forum that you’re using than probably the debate.”
Trump claimed his political opponents will attempt to steal the 2024 election if he wins.
“They’ll try. They’re going to try,” the former president replied. “And not all.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — the candidate largely polling in second place behind Trump — chose to be more timid in his attacks.
DeSantis said he would support the former president if he was convicted, but appeared to make his decision only after watching if other candidates raised their hands in agreement. He also took a veiled shot at the former president over his COVID-19 policies and not firing COVID-19 czar Anthony Fauci. (RELATED: You Don’t Take Somebody Like Fauci And Coddle Him’: DeSantis Takes Veiled Shot At Trump Over COVID)
DeSantis honed in on his experience as Florida governor by invoking his opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns and juxtaposing his responses to disasters to those of Biden. He stressed that you “have to do what you believe is right” when it comes to abortion, and refused to answer if he would impose a federal abortion ban. He argued education issues are largely leading to the decline of the country.
Ramaswamy took the approach of calling himself a “political outsider” and “not a politician.” At 38, he is the youngest candidate in the race, and stressed the need for a different generation in the Oval Office.
Christie pointed to his experience and launched multiple attacks at Ramaswamy, calling him an “amateur” and saying he “sounds like ChatGPT.”
The former governor, who has championed himself as being the loudest voice against Trump, seemingly couldn’t decide if he would support the former president if he were convicted.
He also said he would send illegal immigrants back, and that the president should be able to “level with the American people about everything,” even on issues like UFOs. (RELATED: Chris Christie Calls Ramaswamy An ‘Amateur’ Obama)
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott mentioned his background of coming from a single parent household and painted himself as the even-keeled candidate, adding that “being childish is not helpful” in deciding the next presidential nominee.
He was the first candidate to say the U.S. needs to “bring our jobs home from China” and said the president should prevent states like New Jersey from having abortions on demand until the day of birth.
Haley, the only woman on the debate stage, toed the line between Democrat and Republican policies. On the economy, she said both parties have spent too much money and that “it’s time for an accountant in the White House.” On abortion, she argued that both parties need to find consensus and Republicans need to be honest about what term limits they can place, given their vote makeup in the Senate.
Pence said he’s the “best prepared” and “the most tested” conservative in the race, and seemingly took repeated shots at Ramaswamy, saying “we don’t need to bring in a rookie.” (RELATED: ‘Rookie! – Super PAC Puppet!’: Debate Devolves Into Yelling Match Between Vivek, Pence)
He also quarreled with Haley on her abortion policies, contending that “consensus is the opposite of leadership,” and sparred with Ramaswamy on his refusal to increase funding for Ukraine.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum focused on his background of coming from a small town and said Americans need “someone in the White House that understands small town values.”
He stressed the need for federalism on abortion and leaving up the choice to the states, because “feds are stepping into people’s lives.”
Burgum also opened his remarks by mentioning that he almost didn’t make it to the debate stage, as he ended up in the hospital after injuring himself in a basketball game.
Hutchinson said he would not support Trump if he were convicted, arguing that the former president undermined the justice system. On abortion, he said he was a pro-life governor and that it would be “certainly fine for it to be addressed at the national level as well.”