The Republican Party held its first presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wis. on Aug. 23 without the frontrunner for the nomination, but the event was still rowdy and contentious despite former President Donald Trump’s absence.
As eight candidates debated for two hours at Fiserv Forum in front of a live audience and aired on FOX News, Tucker Carlson released a pre-recorded interview with Trump on his X, formerly known as Twitter, account.
The Republican Party required all debate participants to sign a pledge affirming their support for the nominee if it was not themselves. Trump trusted that skipping would not jeopardize his sizeable lead against other candidates, and he disavowed the pledge in an interview with Newsmax host Eric Bolling.
“They want you to sign the pledge, but I can name three or four people that I wouldn’t support for President. So, right there, there’s a problem,” Trump said.
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered Wednesday as the clear runner-up behind Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy was the source of the debate’s biggest highlights. Throughout the night, he argued with candidates and drew strong reactions from the audience.
He and former Vice President Mike Pence sparred first. Pence accused him of previously saying “a President can’t do everything.”
After Ramaswamy said, “This isn’t that complicated,” he summarized his positions on energy production, shrinking the size of government and welfare reform.
Moments later, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” before comparing Ramaswamy’s opening remarks where he called himself “a skinny guy with an odd last name” to President Barack Obama.
In response to Christie, Ramaswamy said, “Give me a hug just like you did to Obama … and you’ll help elect me just like you did to Obama.”
When asked if they would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee, six candidates raised their hands to affirm. Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not.
The question preceded Trump’s arrest on charges related to his actions after the 2020 election in Fulton County, Ga. on Aug. 24. He was released after reaching a $200,000 bond agreement.
Ramaswamy was the first to raise his hand and claimed Trump was the greatest president of the 21st century. He then targeted Christie and said, “Your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against one man.”
The audience loudly booed Christie during his response, where he said, “Someone has got to stop normalizing misconduct … the conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States.”
Ramaswamy also raised his hand first when the candidates were asked if they would stop funding Ukraine in their war efforts against Russia.
He also took a nonverbal swing at DeSantis. As DeSantis blamed Europe for failing to “pull their own weight,” Ramaswamy fluttered his hand and licked his finger before pointing it upward.
When Ramaswamy answered, he called out other candidates who have met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “(Ramaswamy) wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel...you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.”
Each candidate presented closing arguments and answered why they were the person who could inspire the nation to a better day.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Hutchinson said the country needed better leadership than President Biden’s. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott cited his humble beginnings to celebrate the individualist spirit of America, and Christie said he is the only candidate who can defeat Biden.
Haley discussed her husband’s military experiences and said, “If (soldiers) are willing to protect us from there, we should be willing to fight for America here.”
Pence claimed he has proven himself to “move a conservative agenda forward” and has faith in the American people.
Ramaswamy recited his 10 truths, the core of his presidential campaign. His truths range from “God is real” to “The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to man.”
DeSantis cited his political résumé and personal experiences as proof of his potential as president.
“In Florida, we showed it could be done. I made promises and I delivered on all of those promises.”
After the debate, CNN’s Gary Tuchman spoke with 15 Iowa Republicans, seven of whom believed Ramaswamy had the best performance.
“Vivek understands that young folks … don’t really love America, and if you don’t love it, you can’t protect it,” one voter said.
Results from a Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos poll featuring 775 Republican voters showed DeSantis as the best performer at 29 percent, with Ramaswamy receiving 26 percent.