Eight presidential hopefuls faced off in the crucial battleground state of Wisconsin to make the case why they should be the Republican nominee for President of the United States in 2024.

But the only candidate who has actually occupied the Oval Office – Donald J. Trump, the race’s current frontrunner by a long shot – wasn’t on the stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The former president instead took part in a wide-ranging, conspiracy-laden interview with Tucker Carlson posted on social media as the debate raged on.

Despite his absence, the former president’s presence was felt throughout the debate hall at the Fiserv Forum – home of the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks – with his former vice president and U.N. ambassador squaring off with Trump allies, acolytes and critics alike on a range of topics, including his looming legal troubles.

Here are key takeaways from the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 cycle.

Despite absence, Trump looms large over first GOP debate

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The second hour of the Republican debate kicked off with what moderator Bret Baier called “the elephant not in the room": former President Trump, who has been indicted in 4 different states on 91 different counts and is set to be processed in Fulton County, Ga., on Thursday related to his loss in the 2020 election.

When the candidates were asked whether they would support Trump if he won the GOP nomination and is convicted of a crime, six of the eight candidates raised their hands. Vivek Ramaswamy raised his hand first, followed by Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Ron DeSantis, then, seemingly reluctantly, Mike Pence and Doug Burgum. Asa Hutchinson was the only one who did not raise his hand, while Christie half-raised his hand before making a dismissive gesture. 

When the moderators singled Christie out, he said, “Here’s the bottom line. Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct.” While the crowd booed, he continued. “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.”

Christie was still talking when Vivek Ramaswamy butted in to say, “President Trump was the best president of the 21st century,” to which he received huge applause from the crowd of 4,000. “We can ot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents in its raw weaponization of justice in this country.”

Christie responded to Ramaswamy by saying, “You make me laugh.”

While the crowd was booing Christie, moderator Bret Baier turned to the crowd and told them, “The more time we spend doing this, the less time we can spend time on issues you want to talk about.”

Moderator Martha MacCallum followed up the initial back and forth by asking all of the candidates whether they believed former Vice President Mike Pence had done the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, by certifying the election for President Biden.

Tim Scott agreed “absolutely,” and said the first thing he would do as president is fire Attorney General Merrick Garland.

DeSantis also agreed, saying, “this election is not about January 6, 2021. It’s about January 20, 2025, when the next president will take office.”

Nikki Haley, Doug Burgum and Mike Pence himself also agreed.

Hutchison said he would not support Trump as the nominee “because we as a party have to face an important issue.” Hutchison reminded the crowd that a year ago, he said Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being president as a result of what happened on January 6, to which he was roundly booed.

“I’m not going to support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony or who is disqualified under our constitution, and that’s consistent with RNC rules.”

Candidates voice support for Pence’s Jan. 6 actions, some louder than others

Former Vice President Mike Pence talks with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a break at a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

All of the candidates who were asked about it said they believe former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, by refusing to follow then-President Donald Trump’s demands to reject certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. 

Some, however, seemed to be in a race to change the subject.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said, “Absolutely, he did the right thing” and then quickly pivoted to attacking what he views as the political weaponization of the Justice Department.

Florida Gov. DeSantis initially refused to answer the question. He instead also called for ending “the weaponization of these federal agencies” and said the 2024 election should be about the future, not Jan. 6.

After it appeared DeSantis might get away without answering the question, Pence himself stepped in and said, “I think the American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day.”

Only then did DeSantis address the question.

“I've answered this before,” he said. “So yeah, Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him.”

North Dakota Doug Burgum, too, said “Mike Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6” before arguing the candidates should instead be discussing China, Ukraine and education.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Trump’s biggest critic on the stage, was more adamant about his support for Pence.

“Mike Pence stood for the Constitution, and he deserves not grudging credit, he deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office and the Constitution of the United States before personal, political and unfair pressure,” Christie said.

Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, also said she believes Pence did the right thing and “we need to give him credit for that.” She then said “it is time for a new generational conservative leader.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and anti-woke activist Vivek Ramaswamy were not asked about Pence standing up to Trump on Jan. 6. But Hutchinson said he believes Trump should be “morally disqualified” from serving as president and might also be ineligible under the 14th Amendment’s provision barring anyone who violated their oath by participating in an insurrection. Ramaswamy, on the other hand, has said he would pardon Trump on first day in office if elected.

Trump tells Tucker Carlson why he skipped the debate

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In his debate night interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, former President Trump explained why he wasn’t on the stage with his fellow Republican presidential primary candidates in Milwaukee on Wednesday: his massive polling lead, the lack of credibility of cable news and his distaste for his GOP rivals.

“Many people said you shouldn't do it. But you see the polls have come out and I'm leading by 50 and 60 points and some of” the other candidates are polling in the low single digits,” Trump explained. “And I'm saying, ‘do I sit there for an hour or two hours — whatever it's going to be — get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that?”

Trump leads in all national and early primary state polling, averaging 52% in national polls as of Wednesday, according to the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight. His next closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is sitting at around 15% on average, giving Trump a 37 percentage point lead. Ramaswamy is hovering just under 10% and no other candidate is above 5%.

“I'm going to have eight people, 10 people, whoever made the debate — I don't know how many it is. But I'm gonna 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,” Trump said in the interview posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “So I've taken a pass as you probably noticed.”

Trump, who once boosted his national profile by hosting a popular reality show, also cited the decline of cable news as a reason for him not to participate in the Fox News debate -- “a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me.”

For Trump, cable news lacks credibility.

“They really don't have credibility. Fox is way down [in ratings], as you know. And the good old days are long ago,” Trump said. “Tucker, you know that perhaps better than anybody. I think it was a terrible move getting rid of you. You were number one on television and all of a sudden we're doing this interview, but we'll get bigger ratings using this crazy forum that you're using, than probably the debate, our competition.”

Carlson parted ways with Fox News in April after a tumultuous period that included his less-than-flattering text messages being published into the court record during a lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems that the network settled for $787.5 million. The voting machine company alleged Fox News defamed them by promoting lies about the 2020 presidential election.

Haley, Pence spar over national abortion ban

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

While all the candidates on stage agree that they are firmly anti-abortion, they differed over whether they would sign a national abortion ban if elected president.

That contrast was highlighted in an exchange between former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence.

Haley said lawmakers should be honest with people and admit securing the 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance a national ban is unrealistic. She called instead for finding a consensus on abortion.

“Can't we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions?” She asked. “Can't we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can't we all agree that doctors and nurses who don't believe in abortion shouldn't have to perform them? Can't we all agree that contraception should be available? And can't we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion.”

Pence did not care for her answer.

“Nikki, you're my friend, but consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he said. “When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn't just send it to the states only. It's not a states-only issue; it's a moral issue.”

The former vice president has been advocating for banning abortions nationally at 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“Seventy percent of the American people support legislation [for a 15-week ban],” Pence said.

“But 70% of the Senate does not,” Haley said. “You have to be honest with the American people.”

Candidates spar on the issues: from China and Ukraine to climate change

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

There was one GOP candidate at the center of several contentious moments during Wednesday's debate: Anti-woke activist and entrepeneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

When the moderators asked the candidates how they would calm young Republicans’ fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change, Vivek Ramaswamy called climate change a “hoax" -- which drew loud boos from the crowd.

He added that “the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy. The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”

His remarks even drew a comment from President Joe Biden, his first and only direct comment on the debate, writing on social media: "Climate change is real, by the way."



Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie jumped in while Ramaswamy was talking, saying he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” before calling the anti-woke activist an “amateur” like former President Barack Obama.

And when asked who would not support additional U.S. funding to Ukraine as Russia’s invasion of the country stretches into its second year, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was the only candidate to visibly raise his hand.

“I think that this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else's border when we should use those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy's comments about the Ukraine war, as well as Israel and tensions between China and Taiwan drew swift condemnation from Haley.

The former South Carolina governor said the president needs to have “moral clarity,” and a “win for Russia is a win for China" before saying that Ramaswamy wants to “hand Ukraine to Russia.” 

"The problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is, he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel," the former South Carolina governor said. "You don't do that to friends."

The two sparred over Ramaswamy’s comment that the U.S. needs to focus on issues at home such as the border rather than Ukraine, with Haley saying “we can do both.” 

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley said to Ramaswamy – a first-time candidate – to boisterous cheers from the crowd.  

Ramaswamy also took an indirect hit at former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, saying politicians should not be visiting Ukraine and not Maui – which is recovering from the deadliest firefire in the U.S. in more than a century – or the south side of Chicago. 

Christie met with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month. Former Vice President Mike Pence also made the trip to Ukraine in June. 

Christie shot back at Ramaswamy saying “I wanted to see for myself what Vladimir Putin’s army was doing to the free Ukrainian people.” Christie pointed to Trump calling Putin “a genius.” 

Biden campaign comes out swinging during debate

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While President Biden himself only made the one social media comment about climate change during Wednesday's debate -- which had more than 2 million impressions on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, in the hour after the debate -- his re-eection campaign attacked the GOP hopefuls with full force.

Biden-Harris re-election campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz criticized Biden's likely 2024 opponent Donald Trump for taking part in a "softball" interview with Tucker Carlson rather than facing his GOP primary opponents.

"Instead of explaining his broken promises to Wisconsin and the 13,000 Foxconn manufacturing jobs that never were, we’ll likely hear him double down on his most out-of-touch positions, including his support for wild, debunked conspiracy theories and a national abortion ban," Munoz continued. "That same extreme and unpopular agenda will be on display in Milwaukee later tonight by MAGA Republican candidates doing their best impressions of Donald Trump.

"The American people rejected these extreme ideas in 2018, 2020, and 2022 - and they will again in November 2024," he added.

During the debate, Munoz also slammed the Republicans’ responses on Ukraine ("Tonight, some MAGA Republicans running for President of the United States sided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over the Ukrainian people fighting for their democracy"), abortion ("Americans have rejected the extreme, anti-choice positions of MAGA Republicans in the midterms and in elections throughout this year. They will again in 2024"), climate ("Despite another record-breaking summer, MAGA Republicans have railed against efforts to take action on climate and some continue to deny its very existence") and crime ("While MAGA Republicans are blocking legislation to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks, a record number of kids and teens died from gun violence in 2021."), among other topics.

And afterwards, Vice President Kamala Harris, one of the Biden administration and campaign's most vocal advocates, has issued a statement declaring there was no winner in the debate. 

“Instead, the American people heard how much they stand to lose from an extremist agenda,” she said. 

“One by one, each extremist Republican candidate laid out a vision for an America that is less fair, less free, and less safe. These candidates want to raise costs for working families in order to benefit special interests and the ultra-wealthy. To gut Social Security and Medicare. To strip fundamental rights and basic freedoms from millions of people. And to reverse the Bidenomics strategy that has helped create 13 million jobs, the strongest two years of small business creation in history, and record-low unemployment. 

“These extremists focus on unnecessary debates meant to divide our nation in hopes that the American public will not notice they have no affirmative agenda.”

Harris vowed that in a second term she and President Joe Biden would “continue to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out and build a nation in which all people can truly thrive.”

Haley hits Republicans, Trump on debt and spending

Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

On the economy, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said “no one is telling the American people the truth” and argued the GOP is also responsible for large government spending. 

Haley pointed to the $2.2 trillion dollar economic package former President Donald Trump signed into law at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to support businesses and rush resources to health care providers. 

She took a shot at Trump, pointing out he added to the national debt. 

Haley ended saying it's time for an accountant in the White House to loud cheers from the crowd.

A spokesperson for the Biden-Harris 2024 campaign Kevin Munoz said “Nikki Haley is right” in a statement. “Republicans are responsible for some of the country’s worst economic decisions,” he wrote.

Biden later posted a video to social media with Haley's remarks, adding his own comment: "What she said."