TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Eight candidates faced off in the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 presidential race on Wednesday – and we want to know who you think won.
The current frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, skipped out on the debate in favor of a pre-taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, the platform formally known as Twitter.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the discussion was contentious at times, with frequent interruptions from both the candidates and the audience. At one point, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley asked the moderators to take control of the situation.
“Y’all have to gain control of this debate. You have to gain control of this debate,” Haley said after the other candidates began talking over each other during the “lightning round.”
Couldn’t watch the debate? Here’s what you missed:
Despite his absence, Trump – referred to as “the elephant not in the room” by moderator Bret Baier – dominated portions of the discussion.
The crowd booed former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson when they took the debate stage. The two candidates are among the most critical of Trump in the primary race.
All but former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson raised their hand when asked if they would stand by the RNC pledge to support Trump if he becomes the party’s nominee and is later convicted.
“We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” Nikki Haley said while discussing the former president. “We can’t win a general election that way.”
All candidates decried “Bidenomics” – President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy – and what they consider to be excessive government spending. They reiterated their support for law enforcement and vowed to fight any attempts to “defund the police.”
There was a consensus that more must be done to stop Fentanyl deaths and all candidates promised to shore up the southern border with Mexico.
“Our country is in decline,” DeSantis said in his opening statement. “This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline.”
The debate was a critical test for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has long been seen as Trump’s top rival. His campaign has been through several staffing shakeups and messaging shifts in recent months in an attempt to regain footing in the polls.
During the debate, DeSantis highlighted his suspension of two state attorneys, claiming they endangered their communities and saying “we’re going to go after all of these people.” When discussing abortion, DeSantis side-stepped the issue when asked if he would sign a national ban, despite signing a six-week ban in Florida.
In another pre-debate stumble for team DeSantis, his allies leaked hundreds of pages of documents last week that appeared to lay out his debate strategy, including research on his competitors. Documents revealed DeSantis’ allies were focusing in on political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, who has rivaled him for the number two spot in some polls.
The Ramaswamy campaign has undertaken a massive media blitz to get the word out, blanketing both digital and traditional media avenues with interviews and clips aiming to go viral. The biotech entrepreneur has appeared on more than 150 podcasts since his campaign launched earlier this year, according to a recent Politico interview.
During the debate, Ramaswamy took shots at his GOP rivals on several occasions, including while discussing climate change, claiming he is the only candidate “who isn’t bought and paid for.”
“This isn’t that complicated, guys,” Ramaswamy said. “Unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear. Put people back to work by no longer paying them more to stay at home.”
Ramaswamy was the only candidate on the stage to raise his hand when asked if they would not continue supporting Ukraine if elected president. He vowed to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and called his policy “the civil rights issue of our time.”
DeSantis allies also urged him to take jabs at former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie when he criticizes Trump during the debate. Christie opened his campaign by portraying himself as the only candidate ready to take on the former president and called on him to “show up at the debates and defend his record,” calling him “a coward” if he doesn’t.
Christie frequently shot back at his competitors on the stage, including throwing jabs at Ramaswamy, saying he’s “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”
“The last person in one of these debates … who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What is a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama,” Christie said, referring to Ramaswamy’s opening remarks, when he appeared to quote the former president. “And I am afraid we are dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight.”
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott went into the debate hoping for a breakout moment that never really materialized.
In one debate-approved poll in Iowa, Scott joined Trump and DeSantis in reaching double digits. The senator has focused much of his campaign resources on the leadoff GOP voting state, which has a large number of white evangelical voters.
“I’m a 100% pro-life conservative,” Scott said, saying he would support a national 15-week abortion ban “at a minimum.” He later claimed federal agents show up “with guns drawn” at pro-life activists’ doors.
Scott also decried teacher’s unions while discussing his education policy, vowing to “break their backs” if elected. He said he believes they are the greatest obstacle to America’s children achieving their full academic potential.
While former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made no mention of plans to go on the attack while speaking to reporters in Iowa earlier this month, she did explain why she showed up to the state fair in a shirt that read, “Underestimate me, that’ll be fun.”
She was the first female and first minority South Carolina governor and as the only woman in the GOP race, Haley has said transgender students competing in sports is “the women’s issue of our time” and has drawn praise from a leading anti-abortion group, which called her “uniquely gifted at communicating from a pro-life woman’s perspective.”
Having served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador for about two years, Haley frequently cites her international experience, focusing on the threat China poses to the United States.
When asked about abortion, Haley admitted a national ban would be difficult to achieve, and urged lawmakers to focus on curtailing late-term abortions and tackling other issues where there is a bigger consensus.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a former Microsoft executive, has billed himself as the candidate with the least name recognition in the race. He has been using his fortune to boost his standing, offering to give away $20 gift cards in exchange for $1 donations. Critics have questioned whether the offer violates campaign finance law.
Burgum took to the debate stage on crutches after tearing his Achilles tendon while playing basketball with his staffers on Tuesday. As the leader of a state with a booming oil industry, Burgum highlighted his energy policy and called on the federal government to produce more American oil.
Despite signing a six week abortion ban in his state, Burgum indicated he would not sign a nationwide ban. He pulled out a mini pocket constitution while sharing his view on the topic.
Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, met the polling threshold, but struggled to amass a sufficient number of donors, raising the possibility he might not qualify for the first debate.
An adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy said earlier this month that Pence had participated in roughly a half-dozen formal debate prep sessions to date, including at least one in which a campaign aide previously close to Trump is playing the part of the former president.
While discussing the economy during the debate, Pence fired shots at Ramaswany while touting his own lengthy political tenure, saying “we don’t need a rookie” in the White House. He reiterated his pro-life stance and said he would pursue a nationwide ban on abortion if elected in 2024.
Pence chastised the other candidates for failing to answer a question over whether he did the right thing by going through with certifying the electoral vote on Jan. 6 despite the riot.
“I think the American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day,” Pence said.
Former two-term Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson was the final candidate to meet the RNC’s qualifications. He is running in the mold of an old-school Republican and has differentiated himself from many of his GOP rivals in his willingness to criticize Trump.
During the debate, Hutchinson vowed to govern by “positive” conservative principles. When discussing the southern border, he called out Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, claiming he is not cooperating with the U.S. to combat drug trafficking, and touted his previous role leading the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.