With stakes high and Trump missing, Republican presidential hopefuls debate

Candidates, From Left, Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, former Vice President and Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence, Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott, and Republican presidential candidate Doug Burgum take the stage at the first Republican presidential candidate debate of the 2024 presidential race at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI
1 of 10 | Candidates, From Left, Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, former Vice President and Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence, Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott, and Republican presidential candidate Doug Burgum take the stage at the first Republican presidential candidate debate of the 2024 presidential race at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Republican presidential candidates scrapped for time on the microphone in a contentious first primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

The candidates teed off on the Biden administration to open the event, but it was not long before they began trading barbs with each other.


The debate took place at the Fiserv Forum, moderated by Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

Each candidate was given 1 minute to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-up questions and comments. Candidates did not make opening statements but will be given 45 seconds at the end of the night for closing statements.

The candidates onstage are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.


Early fireworks

Ramaswamy found himself at the center of most of the early fireworks. He called for "new blood" in the Republican Party, to cheers. However, following comments from the other candidates, he said he was "the only one on this stage who hasn't been bought and paid for." Crosstalk between the candidates and a spattering of boos quickly erupted.

"Now that everybody got their memorized, prepared slogans down it's time for a real conversation," Ramaswamy said. "Do you want a super-PAC puppet or a patriot who speaks the truth?"

"I've had enough already tonight of a guy that sounds like ChatGPT," Christie chimed back. "The last person who stood in the middle of the stage and said they're a skinny guy with an odd last name was Barack Obama, and I'm afraid we're dealing with the same type of amateur."

Before the back-and-forth, DeSantis did deliver several canned comments that have been staples of his campaign thus far, including a line about sending President Joe Biden "back to his basement" and saying "decline is not inevitable. It's a choice."

Haley challenges Republican Party

Haley, though, broke from the party line when discussing the national debt.


"I care about telling America the truth. Joe Biden didn't do this to us. Republicans did this to us, too," she said. "Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our national debt. At the end of the day, look at the 2024 budget. Republicans asked for $7.4 billion a year in earmarks, Democrats asked for $2.8 billion. You tell me who are the big spenders."

Haley also separated herself on the topic of abortion, saying the party must not be afraid of the topic any longer. She described herself as "unapologetically pro-life" but the Supreme Court should not have made a decision on something "this personal."

"We have to stop demonizing this issue," she said. "When it comes to a federal ban, let's be honest with people and say it will take 60 Senate votes, it will take a majority of the House. To do that we need to find a consensus. Can't we all agree we are not going to put a woman in jail if she gets an abortion?"

After DeSantis avoided answering the question, Pence said he would support a federal 15-week ban.

"A consensus is the opposite of leadership," Pence said. "It's not a states-only issue. It's a moral issue. Can't we have a minimum standard in every state that when a baby is capable of feeling pain an abortion cannot be allowed?"


On climate change, MacCallum called on candidates who believe it is caused by human activity to raise their hands, but DeSantis stopped this from happening, remarking "we're not school children. Let's have the debate."

DeSantis was critical of Biden's response to the fires in Maui and said the "corporate media" mistreats Republicans in the climate discussion. Ramaswamy followed, saying "more people are dying of bad climate change policies than actual climate change."

"The anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on the economy," Ramaswamy said. "This isn't that complicated. To unlock American energy we need to drill, frack -- put people back to work."

Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump is notably missing from the debate stage. Instead he is appearing in a pre-recorded interview with Tucker Carlson on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Trump is facing indictments in four jurisdictions. He is expected to surrender himself at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia on Thursday.

Baier brought Trump's absence to the forefront, remarking that he wanted to talk about "the elephant that isn't in the room," as the network showed live footage of the Fulton County Jail.

For candidates to participate in the debate they were required to sign a pledge to support the Republican nominee. Baier asked them if they would support Trump if he is convicted. Ramaswamy, Haley, Scott and Burgum immediately raised their hands. DeSantis initially looked around the stage before raising his hand, followed by Pence. Christie, who has been critical of Trump over the indictments on the campaign trail, raised and shook his hand apprehensively, suggesting uncertainty, while Hutchinson's hand stayed down.


"Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct," Christie explained of his apprehensive gesture. "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."

Some in the crowd booed Christie's response. Ramaswamy again had a heated exchange with the former New Jersey governor, pushing back on the denouncement of the indicted former president. When Christie responded the boos were louder but he was given time to deliver a retort. Christie reiterated that Trump's actions were beneath the office and that he would defend the Constitution.

DeSantis was asked if he believes Pence did the right thing by not cooperating with Trump's alleged plan to overturn the results of the election. DeSantis again avoided the question, which the moderators noted, and the Florida governor said he aims to end the weaponization of the Justice Department.

"Is this what we're going to be focusing on? The rehashing of this?" DeSantis said. "The Democrats would love that."

"Let me just say, Gov. DeSantis, we spent an hour talking about policy," Baier said. "Former President Trump is beating you by 30, 40 points in many polls. So it is a factor in the GOP primary."


Ramaswamy noted that he is the only candidate on the stage to pledge to pardon Trump if he is elected. He asked Pence if he would make the same pledge.

"There's a difference between you and me. I've actually given pardons," Pence said. "No one is above the law. Donald Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence every American is entitled to."

"The American people deserve to know in his request to reject or return votes to the states -- he asked me to put him over the Constitution and I chose the Constitution and I always will," he continued.

Hutchinson explained why he did not raise his hand, saying Trump is morally disqualified for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to stop Biden from being certified as the 46th president of the United States.

"This is something that could disqualify him under our rules and under the Constitution," he said.

The War in Ukraine and border security

The U.S. support of Ukraine as it fights back against invading Russia was also a divisive topic across the stage. DeSantis said, rather than pledging more funding to Ukraine he would call on the rest of Europe to provide more assistance. Ramaswamy argued that the defense funding toward Ukraine should have been used to patrol the southern border.


Ramaswamy was critical of Christie and Pence for visiting Kyiv.

Haley said that Ukraine is the United States' first line of defense against Russia and by not supporting Ukraine, the United States would face a larger conflict in the future.

"This guy is a murderer. Look at what he did today," Haley said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, referencing the death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin earlier in the day. "You are choosing a murderer of a pro-American country."

Ramaswamy and Haley engaged in crosstalk but Haley got in the last word.

"You have put down everybody on this stage but you want to go defund Israel. You want to give Ukraine to Russia," Haley said. "Under your watch you will make America less. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows."

Burgum also supported providing assistance to Ukraine but said the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan may have played a role in Russia's decision to invade.

"What is happening in Ukraine is what happens when deterrents fail," Burgum said. "When they see weakness they make a move."

When the topic turned to the southern border, Scott said he would increase surveillance and utilize technology to stop migrants from illegally entering the United States and to stop drug traffickers. He claimed his plan would save the lives of 70,000 Americans per year who are killed from fentanyl.


An image was shown to the candidates that MacCallum said was of people crossing the border with firearms. Hutchinson said that he would authorize the use of lethal force in an instance such as this. DeSantis agreed. Hutchinson added that cooperation with Mexico is needed to address the prominence of drug cartels.

"We cannot be successful going against the cartel unless we bring Mexico in to be a partner," Hutchinson said. "President [Andres Manuel] Obrador has not been helpful. We need to use economic pressures this administration is not using."

If elected, Pence vowed to apply such pressure, stating that it was him who negotiated policy with Mexico on behalf of the Trump administration and used economic pressure to "bring Mexico to the table."

"We got the Mexicans to deploy their national guard. I will engage Mexico the exact same way," Pence said. "We will partner with the Mexican military and we will hunt down and destroy the cartels that are claiming lives."


The moderators asked the candidates about what they described as an "education crisis," citing a decline in reading ability in young children. One of Ramaswamy's remedies would be to shutter the Department of Education, while Scott, DeSantis and Christie said they would shut down teachers unions.


Borrowing a line from fellow candidate Larry Elder, Ramaswamy then took aim at the "epidemic of fatherlessness."

"I had the ultimate privilege of having two parents in the house with a focus on educational achievement," he said. "We have a federal government that pays single women more to not have a man in the house."

The "epidemic of fatherlessness" is one of the main topics Elder has campaigned on, often stating that women are encouraged to "marry the government."

Burgum pushed back on any "one-size-fits-all" remedies, citing the ban he signed in North Dakota against transgender girls participating in women's sports. It is a ban he said that has never needed to be used, though he was proud to sign it.

"Some school districts are doing a fantastic job. Some maybe less so," he said. "To think that every school is indoctrinating people is just false. Most teachers care about their kids."

Closing statements

In their closing statements, the candidates shared similar themes of crippling inflation and a weakened economy under the Biden administration. Burgum vowed to get the economy "sprinting, not crawling." Hutchinson said new leadership was needed in the White House, rather than Biden or Trump.

Scott evoked his experience being raised by a single mother.


"I wondered if the American dream was real for a kid like me," he said. "I stand before you today to tell you the American dream is alive, well and healthy."

Christie touted winning the 2010 gubernatorial election in New Jersey, unseating Democrat Jon Corzine in a state that is considered a stronghold for Democrats. He said he is the only candidate on the stage to do so.

Burgum was nearly a last-minute scratch for the debate as he injured his Achilles tendon playing basketball on Tuesday. Hours before the start of the debate he confirmed on Twitter that he would participate.

"I've played lots of pick-up games in my day! This isn't the first time one has sent me to the ER. Appreciate all the well-wishes!" Burgum tweeted.

The Republican National Committee will host a second debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 27. The bar will be higher for candidates to become eligible for that debate.

Candidates need at least 50,000 unique donors to meet the criteria for the second debate. They must also have at least 200 unique donors each in 20 different states or territories. They must also poll at minimum 3% in at least one national poll and 3% in two polls from different early voting states.


They needed 40,000 unique donors and to poll at 1% in at least three national polls or two national polls and one early-voting state poll to participate Wednesday.

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