Eight GOP presidential candidates — minus frontrunner Donald Trump — faced off Wednesday night in the first Republican presidential primary debate of the season in Milwaukee.
Even though Trump skipped the Fox News event for a one-on-one interview with Tucker Carlson on his X (aka Twitter) account, the former president still managed to dominate the Fox News-hosted broadcast in absentia.
The Republican contenders — meeting on a stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — took shots Trump while trying to one-up one another — often loudly. And the yelling didn’t just come from onstage, the raucous audience got involved too, frequently shouting down candidates who — you guessed it — spoke ill of the former president.
On hand were former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Fox kicked off the debate broadcast with the National Anthem, sung by Christian music star Natalie Grant, followed by a first debate question focused on the unlikely hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” But before the debate began properly, commentator Trey Gowdy, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina, offered a brutal assessment of the candidates by noting what they have in common.
“They’re all behind,” Gowdy said, adding that all eight candidates need to be bold to get noticed by Republican voters who favor Trump.
During the debate, some of the heaviest jeers came to Ramaswamy when he bashed the other candidates and the “climate change agenda.”
“Let us be honest as Republicans. I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this. Climate change agenda is a hoax,” Ramaswamy said, adding that it also is a “wet blanket” on the economy
Christie slammed Ramaswamy for his lack of political experience.
“I’ve had enough of a guy… who sounds like Chat GPT,” Christie, 60, said of Ramaswamy, who is 38.
Ramaswamy introduced himself to voters who might be asking “who is this skinny guy with the funny last name?” and proudly proclaimed himself as an entrepreneur, not a politician.
Christie said the last presidential candidate who introduced himself that way was Barack Obama, and warned voters not to vote for a repeat of that Democratic president.
“I am afraid we are dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight.”
Christie said the party also needs to stop supporting Trump, “who disrespects the Constitution.” Christie said he doesn’t know how Trump’s criminal trials will go, but “the conduct is beneath the office of the United States.” Jeered by Trump supporters in the crowd, Christie said he supports their free speech. “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth,” Christie said.
Ramaswamy said Christie sounds like he’s “running for president of MSNBC.”
In one of the few positive comments between candidates, Christie praised Pence for rejecting Trump’s request for Pence to try to overturn the results of the last election in Pence’s role as president of the U.S. Senate.
“Mike Pence stood for the Constitution… He deserves our thanks as Americans,” Christie said.
Ramaswamy took the opportunity to double down as the only candidate to pledge that if he wins, he will issue a presidential pardon to Trump, earning another jab from Christie
“Here’s the bottom line. someone’s got to stop normalizing (Trump’s) conduct,” Christie said. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the united states. And you know, this is the great thing about this country, booing is aloud but it doesn’t change the truth.”
Pence, meanwhile, said he was proud of the job he did supporting the Constitution as vice president.
“No one’s above the law, and President Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence… but the American people deserve to know that the President… asked me to put him over the constitution. And I chose the constitution, and I always will.” He added that Kamala Harris also wouldn’t be able to overturn the 2024 election results.
Christie and Ramaswamy got into another shouting match over Trump and over Ramaswamy’s book. Christie said Ramaswamy was more critical of Trump in the book than on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came out firmly against abortion.
“I will support the cause of life,” DeSantis said. “We’re better than what the Democrats are selling.”
He argued that he would also put American back on track after four years of Biden.
“Our country is in decline,” DeSantis said. “We need to send Joe back to his basement so Amerians have a chance to succeed again.”
One of the boldest statements of the night came from Scott, who bashed teachers unions for ruining education in America.
“The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers unions. 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,” Scott said.
To qualify for the Republican National Committee’s event, the candidates had to secure at least 1 percent in several polls in early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. (They also had to show that at least 40,000 unique donors had given to their campaign committees.)
The candidates also had to sign a pledge that they would support the eventual GOP presidential nominee; they had to agree not to participate in any non-RNC-sponsored debate for the remainder of the 2024 election cycle, and they had to pledge to share data with the national committee.
Trump, who is currently leading by 30-40 points in national polling, was coy for months about whether or not he would participate in the official GOP debates, but amid the RNC demands, Trump decided to go his own way with Carlson, who was fired by Fox News earlier this year.
With both Trump and Carlson setting their own agendas, the two men found common ground in a largely friendly conversation Wednesday night.