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Highlights from first 2024 Republican presidential debate

What we covered here

  • First GOP showdown: Eight Republican presidential candidates faced off Wednesday night in the first primary debate of the 2024 campaign in Milwaukee, clashing over a multitude of issues as they vied to make their case as to why they're the most viable alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump.
  • Sharp attacks: Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was the central figure for much of the night, brawling with former Vice President Mike Pence over his experience, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley over foreign policy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over Trump, and more.
  • Speaking time: Pence led the debate with more than 12 minutes of speaking time, followed by Ramaswamy and Christie. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson had the least amount of time to speak.
  • Trump was a no-show: The former president, indicted in four separate criminal cases, skipped the debate ahead of his expected surrender Thursday in the Georgia 2020 election subversion case.
12:05 p.m. ET, August 24, 2023

What you need to know about the first GOP presidential primary debate 

Republican presidential candidates take the stage before the debate on August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Morry Gash/AP
Eight of Donald Trump's primary rivals brawled for second-place status Wednesday night at the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate,
If you're just catching up, here's what you need to know:
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and first-time candidate, was alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the center of the stage – and he was the central figure for much of the night. And because he has positioned himself as a defender of Trump, Ramaswamy was, at times, a stand-in for the former president, who momentarily ceded the stage Wednesday night but will take it back Thursday when he turns himself in at the Fulton County jail in Georgia as he faces election subversion charges.
Ron DeSantis set the expectation that he would be the focal point of Wednesday’s debate. He was anything but. He certainly didn’t speak the most. Though his campaign suggested his Republican opponents would have their “knives out” for DeSantis, he wasn’t on the receiving end of many attacks. And at a key moment – when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he is convicted in a court of law – DeSantis peeked around the stage to see how everyone else had responded before he half heartedly put up his right palm.

When moderators asked DeSantis whether Pence was right to reject Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the Florida governor attempted to dodge – ignoring what he’d been asked and complaining about the “weaponization” of the federal government. But Pence dug in, putting DeSantis on the spot.

“The American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day. There’s no more important duty, so answer the question,” he said.

“Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said, attempting to quickly move on. The moment illustrated how cautious the Florida governor is of alienating Trump’s base.

Chris Christie doesn’t have a breakout moment. While Christie’s “ChatGPT” line was reminiscent of his past debate performance, he failed to trip up Ramaswamy. Instead, the Ohio businessman went on to attack him over his criticism of Trump. Asked if he would support the former president if he’s convicted of a crime, Christie said the party needs to stop “normalizing this conduct,” drawing boos from the crowd.
Tim Scott stuck to Mr. Nice Guy routine. The problem was that approach kept him out of most of the exchanges. While the other candidates were debating and skirmishing over abortion, Ukraine or whether Trump should be pardoned, Scott wasn’t really in it. He did try and insert himself with warnings about the “weaponization” of the federal government and crime in America. But all of his comments and arguments faded into the background as candidates piled on Ramaswamy or Christie praised Pence for his actions on January 6, 2021.

When Scott did get a chance to weigh in on the southern border, illegal immigration and fentanyl, he offered a long answer about how important and easy it would be to finish Trump’s border wall.

“As the next president of the United States, I will make that border wall complete,” Scott said, extending each word in that concluding sentence. He paused for applause. There was none.

Read more about the takeaways from the GOP presidential debate here.
11:46 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Trump "will spend more time in court" than "on the campaign trail": Haley says about his nomination chances

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during the Republican primary debate on Wednesday, August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Morry Gash/AP

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley raised her hand on Wednesday night’s debate stage in support of voting for a potential convicted felon if former President Donald Trump becomes the GOP nominee.

In an ABC interview, she quickly noted “he hasn’t been convicted yet,” but also stating she doesn’t believe Trump will become the become the Republican party nominee.

“I don't think it's going to get to that point. I think Donald Trump will spend more time in court next year than he's going to spend on the campaign trail. I think Americans are tired of talking about the past,” Haley said.

"I don't even think it will get to the point that Donald Trump becomes president. I think that I’m going to be the nominee. I think we are going to win,” Haley added.

11:42 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Ramaswamy's "inexperience" showed at GOP debate, Hutchinson tells CNN

Vivek Ramaswamy is displayed on screens during the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23. Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
GOP hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy’s “inexperience” showed in Wednesday's first Republican primary showdown in Milwaukee, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.

“He’s standing out with some very harsh statements, policy positions that are not workable. And I think it showed tonight in that, you know, inexperience and his inability to bring people together to solve problems for our country. He is a little bit of a bomb thrower on policy issues,” he told CNN.

The former tech entrepreneur has never held public office and was the youngest candidate on stage.

Hutchinson also stood by his criticism of former President Donald Trump during the debate. “It was a good moment, it was an important message. I had the courage to make the case, and other candidates should as well,” he told CNN.

Hutchinson also expressed confidence that he’ll be on the second debate stage after barely qualifying for tonight’s first GOP primary.

“I really do. Obviously, being on this debate stage helps you to get on the next one,” he said.

11:35 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Vivek Ramaswamy calls flurry of attacks on debate stage "a badge of honor"

Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to reporters after the Republican primary debate on August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Morry Gash/AP
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said he was “thrilled” with his performance at the first Republican primary debate and that he received the onslaught of attacks from multiple candidates on the stage as “a badge of honor” signaling his campaign’s growing stature in the race.
“To be at center stage and see a lot of establishment politicians (who are) that threatened by my rise, I am thrilled that it actually gave me an opportunity to introduce myself to the people of this country,” he told CNN after the debate.

Ramaswamy responded to sharp critiques from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on his foreign policy positions and lack of experience. The former US ambassador to the UN said Ramaswamy has “no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

“The reality is, the people who have foreign policy experience, it shows what a disaster it's been, from the Iraq war on down to pointless wars, no-win wars,” Ramaswamy told CNN after the debate. “I think the results speak for themselves. They’ve been disastrous.”

The Ohio businessman has proposed advancing a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine that would cede Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine to Russia. When asked if it could threaten a nearby NATO ally, and by extension, increase the risk of the US being forced to engage in war in Europe, Ramaswamy said, “Russia will not move on a NATO ally” under his administration, but added the US “will always honor” its NATO obligations.

“How can you be so sure?” CNN's Dana Bash asked.

“Because I will do a deal that ends Ukraine war on terms that are backstopped by US interests,” Ramaswamy said.

When asked how he would manage to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to agree to a deal that sees Kyiv ceding territory to Russia, Ramaswamy said the withdrawal of US aid could force Ukraine to accept a deal. “But I think this would be a better deal for Ukraine, because it comes out with its sovereignty intact,” he added.

11:39 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Burgum says "no way" he would have missed the first GOP primary debate despite ruptured Achilles

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23.  Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Doug Burgum says there’s “no way” he would have missed the first Republican primary debate, despite rupturing his Achilles tendon on Tuesday.

The North Dakota governor confirmed he was examined by a Milwaukee Bucks orthopedic surgeon on Wednesday afternoon who deemed his injury a “complete rupture,” he said.

CNN previously reported that he suffered a high-grade tear of his Achilles tendon while playing a game of pick-up basketball with his staff on Tuesday.

Burgum differentiated himself on the debate stage by saying the issue of abortion should be decided on the state level, as opposed to federal. He reiterated his stance during his post-debate interview with CNN.

“We have so much overreach of the federal government in every part of everybody's lives. This is one of the last areas we need to have more federal overreach, so it should be left to the states,” Burgum said.

Acknowledging he may have been “the least well-known” on the debate stage, the North Dakota governor said it felt “very good” for his first debate.

10:18 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

DeSantis calls debate a "food fight" and says Trump made a "mistake" skipping

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during the first Republican primary debate on August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Morry Gash/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his first Republican primary debate performance Wednesday, saying he didn’t want to get in a “food fight” and that he was focused on his “vision for the future.”

“I think for me though, 100% of my time was talking about our vision for the future. And my accomplishments. And so, there's a lot of people up there that said a lot of things. I'm the only one that's actually delivered on all these issues,” he said in an interview on Fox News Thursday morning.

DeSantis also suggested that he was ready for more criticism coming his way.

“If someone came after me, I was ready to go, loaded for bear. We were going to respond and put that to bed. But, you know, I was more interested in talking directly to the people at home rather than kind of some of the bickering that was back and forth. So, there was a lot that was going on. My thing is just like, OK, that's fine. But let's focus on the issues that matter,” he said. 

The Florida governor also argued that former President Donald Trump “made a mistake” skipping the first debate.

“I think people, Republican voters expect you to show up and make the case. They don't think anybody is entitled to any of this. And so, I think it is in his interest to debate the next time. I can tell you, I will be there," he added.

11:30 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Christie says his proudest debate moment was "telling the truth" on Trump

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Republican primary debate on August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Morry Gash/AP
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN on Thursday he thinks his strongest moment in the first Republican primary debate was "telling the truth" about former President Donald Trump, the party's frontrunner who chose to forgo the onstage showdown.
"Look, if you're unwilling to confront him when he's not there, how the heck are you going to confront him when he is?" Christie argued in his first TV interview after the debate. "I'm proud of the fact that I was the only one willing to do it repeatedly and directly."

He argued that if candidates aren't willing to call out Trump, whom polls show the majority of GOP primary voters support, they should concede the race to him now, "which is what a lot of those people did on the stage last night."

Pressed further on how his combative tone might play to Republican primary voters, including an Iowa voter who told CNN on Wednesday night that it seemed Christie was just "out after Trump," Christie responded, "I am out to beat Donald Trump because I think he deserves to be beaten."

Asked whether presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who Christie got into multiple contentious exchanges with, was the future of his party, the former New Jersey governor firmly said, "no."

"Now, he wants to insult all of us who have been giving to the public, been in public life for decades, sacrificing to try to make this a better country while he's been sitting on the sidelines, pouting and not voting or participating in the process. So, you know, no, I don't think that's the future of our party," he said.

10:01 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Pence tells CNN he believes "more after last night" that Trump won't be the GOP nominee

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23. Brian Snyder/Reuters
Former Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday said “more after last night” he believes Donald Trump is not going to be the GOP nominee, after the former president was absent from the first Republican primary debate Wednesday night.

Asked why he raised his hand during last night’s debate when candidates were asked if they’d back Trump as the party’s nominee even if Trump’s convicted, he said, “every one of us on the stage signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee. And, frankly, my hand was raised in that spirit, just in keeping my word.”

“But I really do believe more after last night that Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee,” he said.

Voters, he added, ”got a better sense of what a deep bench the Republican Party has” and “we have better choices for 2024 for our party.”

Pence was also pressed on his attacks against Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy as inexperienced despite his former boss, Trump, never having held public office before he was president. 

“Why is it disqualifying for Vivek Ramaswamy and not for Donald Trump in 2016?” CNN's Victor Blackwell asked. 

“We’re living in a different time,” Pence responded.

9:16 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

8 GOP presidential primary candidates took the stage for the first debate. Here are key takeaways

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum participate in the first primary debate of the 2024 campaign on Wednesday in Milwaukee. Win McNamee/Getty Images

With Donald Trump skipping the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate, eight of his primary rivals brawled for second-place status Wednesday night.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and first-time candidate, was alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the center of the stage — and he was the central figure for much of the night.

The debate played out in front of a rowdy crowd of about 4,000 people at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The crowd’s reactions — including jeers and boos when candidates criticized Trump — at times drowned out the Fox News moderators.

Here are some takeaways from the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate:
Candidates go after Ramaswamy: With Trump absent from Wednesday’s debate, the early target was Ramaswamy. The first jab came from former Vice President Mike Pence: “Vivek, you recently said a president can’t do everything. Well, I’ve got news for you, Vivek. I’ve been in the hallway. I’ve been in the West Wing. The president of the United States has to confront every crisis facing America.”

That spurred a heated back-and-forth and light name-calling between the two candidates. Later, in the first bit of the debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy’s answers to something cranked out by ChatGPT.

Distinctions over abortion: More than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion policy is still a tricky issue for Republican candidates caught between the need to demonstrate their anti-abortion bona fides and address the realities of the political landscape, where voters have rejected stringent abortion restrictions and the candidates who backed them.

At one end of the spectrum stood former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who sparred with Pence over the possibility of passing a federal ban. She instead pushed for consensus on issues such as encouraging adoption and allowing doctors and nurses with moral objections to the procedure the right not to perform them.

Pence wasn’t willing to go further than endorsing a 15-week federal abortion ban, the cutoff offered in a bill South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced last year. Scott also backed the 15-week ban onstage.

Two candidates who have signed a six-week abortion ban into law — DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — stopped short of saying they would do the same nationally.

Haley leans toward general election: Haley brought onto the stage Wednesday a message that was geared more directly toward a general electorate than those of her rivals. What’s less clear is whether she did enough to impress Republican voters to get there.

She was one of the few candidates to acknowledge that climate change is real.

She was also the first to criticize Trump by name, pointing to rising spending during his presidency. She praised Pence’s actions on January 6, 2021, despite Trump’s pressure on the former vice president to seek to overturn the 2020 election result. Haley also called her former boss the “most disliked politician in America.”

And she hammered Ramaswamy during an exchange over Russia, as Haley defended the United States’ support for Ukraine.

Read more takeaways.