Republican Candidates Tangle in Milwaukee Debate as They Vie to be the Leading Alternative to Front-Runner Trump

GOP presidential candidates opened the first Republican primary debate Wednesday night with slams against President Joe Biden — and each other — while they vied to be the leading alternative to the leading candidate, President Donald Trump.

Although Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is running a distant second to Trump, was expected to be the lead target as the front-runner on the stage, the candidates focused their early attacks on tech Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been increasing in the polls. 

“Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in people without experience,” said Vice President Mike Pence, who opened the debate on a testy note as he tried to position himself as the most experienced man in the state.

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also emerged as a fierce critic of former President Trump, laid into Ramaswamy.

“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here, said Christie as he laid into Ramaswamy as an “amateur.”

“Give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” shot back Ramaswamy — a reference to Christie’s embrace of the former president after a storm battered his state. 

Former U.N. Ambassador and Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, the only woman on stage, tried to rise above the fray. 

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” said Haley.

Trump wasn’t on stage in Milwaukee but was a central figure for most of the debate. Fox News moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier were expected to press his rivals to articulate how they would differ in substance and style from the former president, who held an overwhelming lead in the race. 

With less than five months left until the Iowa caucuses jumpstart the Republican presidential nomination process, the debate is a critical opportunity for lower-polling candidates to introduce themselves to millions of voters. 

The pressure on stage is higher for DeSantis, who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has struggled to gain traction and is now fighting to maintain his distant second-place status.

Also on stage were former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who was hospitalized after injuring his Achilles tendon but chose to participate nonetheless.

Former President Trump is the prohibitive early front-runner in the race. However, Trump’s vulnerabilities in a general election are apparent, especially after four criminal indictments that charge him with hoarding classified documents and conspiring to overturn the 2020 election while making hush money payments to a former stripper and porn actress and other women. 

The Republican National Committee had sent donor and polling thresholds and required participants to sign a loyalty pledge to qualify. 

Given his commanding lead in the race, Trump has long said it would be foolish to participate.

His decision to boycott was a blow to the network, which had wooed him publicly and privately to appear. Instead, former President Trump pre-recorded an interview with ex-Fox host Tucker Carlson that was posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, right before the debate kicked off as counter-programming.

“Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?” said Trump in the 46-minute interview.

“I’m going to have all these people screaming at me, shouting questions at me, all of which I love answering, I love doing. But, it doesn’t make sense to do them, so I’m taking a pass,” said Trump.

Before the debate, Trump’s senior campaign adviser, Chris LaCivita, declared Trump had “already won this evening’s debate because everything is going to be about him.”

“In fact, tonight’s Republican undercard event really shouldn’t even be called a debate, but rather an audition to be a part of President Trump’s team in his second term,” quipped LaCivita.

Candidates agree that former VP Mike Pence did the right thing. January 6, 2021

The GOP presidential candidates at Wednesday’s debate primarily said they agreed with former Vice President Mike Pence’s actions on January 6, 2021. 

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said, “Absolutely.”

Although he didn’t immediately answer the question, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “We’ve got to look forward.” Under pressure from the moderators and Pence, DeSantis ultimately said, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got not beef with him,” prompting Pence to say, “I’m relieved.”

The candidates were shown a live image of Atlanta’s Fulton County jail, where Trump is set to surrender Thursday, which drew loud boos from the audience. The moderators said they’d spend a “brief moment about the elephant, not in the room” and asked about the cases against the former president. 

They were then asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he wins the Republican presidential nomination. Six candidates raised their hands, while former Gov. Christie half-raised his hand and Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson lowered his hand. Candidates on stage were required to sign a pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee before joining the debate.