The Republican presidential candidates vying to be the leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump fought — sometimes bitterly — over abortion rights, U.S. support for Ukraine and the future of the party during the first primary debate of the 2024 campaign.
But on what is arguably the most consequential choice facing the party, virtually all lined up behind Trump, saying they would support the former president if he is their nominee, even if he is convicted in a court of law as he faces a slew of criminal charges.
It was a reminder of the power Trump continues to wield in the party, even as he chose to skip the debate, held in Milwaukee, insisting there was no point in participating given his commanding lead.
With less than five months until the Iowa caucuses jumpstart the GOP presidential nomination process, the debate was a critical moment for candidates trying to break through and emerge as the Trump alternative in the race. For Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has since struggled to gain traction, it was a chance to prove that he deserves to maintain his second-place footing.
But DeSantis was sometimes eclipsed by lower-polling candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who tried to use the event, hosted by Fox News, to introduce themselves to millions of viewers and create the kind of viral moment that might spark new momentum as the campaign enters its critical next phase.
While the candidates repeatedly tangled — often talking over moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who tried to maintain control — all but two said they would support Trump as the nominee, even if he ends up a convicted felon.
The question came nearly an hour into the debate and a day before Trump is set to surrender in Georgia on charges of trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election.
The moderators appeared apologetic even to be raising the issue of a potentially incarcerated nominee, saying they would spend just a “brief moment” discussing what they called “the elephant not in the room,” which drew boos from the audience.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing misconduct. 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,” said Christie, who has emerged as one of Trump’s harshest critics and was one of only two candidates who did not raise their hands when asked if they would support him. Christie was promptly booed.
DeSantis, who is polling a distant second to Trump, was among those who did raise his hand. He said Pence “did his duty” on Jan. 6, 2021, when he refused to go along with Trump’s unconstitutional scheme to overturn the vote, but nonetheless pressed the hosts to move on.
“This election is not about Jan. 6, 2021. It’s about Jan. 20 of 2025 when the next president is going to take office,” he said.
The prime-time event unfolded at a moment of reckoning for the Republican Party.
Trump is the prohibitive early front-runner in the race, raising serious questions about whether the party will have much of a competitive primary. Yet Trump’s vulnerabilities in a general election are clear, particularly after four criminal indictments that charge him with hoarding classified documents, conspiring to overturn the 2020 election and making hush money payments to a porn actor and other women.
Yet Trump’s standing in the primary has only increased as the charges have mounted, leaving the GOP on track — barring a stunning realignment — to nominate a candidate who would enter the race against President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in a potentially weak position. Polling this month from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 64% of Americans are unlikely to support Trump if he is the GOP nominee, including 53% who say they would definitely not support him and 11% who say they would probably not support him in November 2024.
Trump, who had long said he felt it would be foolish to participate, given his dominant lead in the race, followed through with his threat to skip the Fox event in a blow to the network, which had wooed him privately and publicly to appear. Instead, Trump pre-recorded an interview with ex-Fox host Tucker Carlson that was posted to the platform formerly known as Twitter right before the debate kicked off.
“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?” Trump said in the interview.
The show went on without Trump and demonstrated sharp divisions within the party on issues, including the war between Russia and Ukraine after Russia’s invasion nearly 18-months ago. Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy said they opposed more funding to Ukraine, arguing the money should be spent securing the U.S. border against drug and human trafficking.
“As president of the United States your first obligation is to defend our country and its people,” DeSantis said.
Ramaswamy compared support for Ukraine to the ill-fated U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Vietnam.
“The realty is that today Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” he said.
Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Pence cast support for Ukraine as a moral obligation and a national security imperative, warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue his aggression if he succeeds in Ukraine, potentially threatening U.S. allies.
“Anybody who thinks we can’t solve problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a small view of the greatest nation on earth,” Pence said.
The candidates also tangled on abortion, underscoring the party’s challenges on the issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. All of the candidates identified as “pro-life,” but differed on when restrictions should kick in after the court ended the constitutional right to an abortion, leading to a wave of restrictions in Republican-led states.
DeSantis refused again to say whether he supports a federal ban.
“I’m going to stand on the side of life. Look, I understand Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to be different, but I will support the cause of life as governor and as president,” he said.
Haley again argued for consensus, saying passing a federal ban would be highly unlikely without more Republicans in Congress.
“Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” rebutted Pence, who has made his opposition to abortion rights a central tenet of his campaign. Pence supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, before many women even know they’re pregnant, and has called on the field to back a 15-week national ban as a minimum.
While DeSantis had expected to be the top target as the front-runner on the stage, the candidates focused their early attacks on Ramaswamy, who has been rising 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 Pence, tried to position himself as the most experienced one on the stage.
Christie also laced into Ramaswamy.
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” he said, calling him an “amateur.”
“Give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” Ramaswamy shot back — a reference to Christie’s embrace of the former president after a storm ravaged his state.
Haley, the only woman on stage, tried to rise above the fray.
“I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ’If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” she said.
The debate was held at the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee, the arena that is home to the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. The city will also be the site of next summer’s Republican convention, a sign of the state’s premier battleground status.
Also on stage were South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who was hospitalized after hurting his Achilles tendon but chose to participate nonetheless.