Eight Republican candidates participated Aug. 23 in the Republican National Committee's first debate of their party's presidential primary process in a Milwaukee debate hosted by Fox News -- but the party's frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, did not attend, and was referred to by moderator Bret Baier as "the elephant not in the room."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott participated in their party's first debate. Moderators Baier and Martha MacCallum opened the debate with questions about the viral song "Rich Men North of Richmond" and Americans' concerns about the economy. But debate topics ranged from abortion to immigration to UFOs, as well as Trump's criminal indictments and his role in the future of the party.
Asked if they would support Trump as their party's nominee if he were convicted of a crime amid his criminal indictments, most candidates replied affirmatively.
Christie, who said he would not, argued that "whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong," Trump's conduct in the aftermath of the 2020 election "is beneath the office of president of the United States."
Ramaswamy, who spoke defensively of Trump, accused Christie of running a campaign of "vengeance and grievance."
The candidates were asked whether they thought Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, the day rioters and supporters of then-President Donald Trump attempted to block Congress' certification of President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory, by refusing to go along with Trump's attempts to stay in office despite his loss.
Pence himself said that Trump asked him to put Trump before the Constitution, which Pence would not do, because his oath of office to protect the Constitution was made to the American people and "to my heavenly Father."
"The American people deserve to know that the president asked me in his request that I reject or return votes unilaterally, power that no vice president in American history had ever exercised or taken," Pence said. "He asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution. And I always will. I had no right to overturn the election, and (Vice President) Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024."
On the issue of abortion, Pence, Scott and Hutchinson were the only candidates who specifically embraced passing a 15-week federal gestational limit.
Pence said abortion is "not a states-only issue but a moral issue," calling for a minimum standard "in every state in the nation."
"A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come," he said.
Scott also called for the same measure, calling it "immoral" some states permit elective abortions with no gestational limits.
But Haley emphasized fostering areas of consensus, like supporting adoption, and cited a lack of an ability to overcome the Senate's 60-vote filibuster in order to pass a federal ban on abortion.
DeSantis touted a six-week ban he signed in Florida, a measure that is not currently in effect amid a legal challenge; but DeSantis dodged a question about whether he would do so at the federal level. Burgum cited the Constitution's 10th Amendment, arguing that individual states determining their own limits is constitutional.
The candidates engaged in a contentious back and forth about whether the U.S. should send additional aid to Ukraine amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of that nation.
Ramaswamy accused some Republicans of going on "pilgrimages" to Ukraine to meet with "Pope Zelenskyy," speaking disparagingly of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Haley said Ramaswamy was "choosing a murderer over a pro-American country," in siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"You would make America less safe," she said. "You have no foreign policy experience and it shows."
The candidates also took hard-line stances on unauthorized immigration, but DeSantis took it a step further, expressing openness to sending U.S. military personnel into Mexico to combat drug cartels.
"So as president would I use force; would I treat them as foreign terrorist organizations? You're darn right I would," he said.
Moderators at one point chided the audience for excessive booing after Christie offered criticism of Trump.
"Listen, the more time we spend doing this, the less time they can talk about issues you want to talk about," Baier said. "So let's just get through this section."
In other contentious back-and-forths between candidates, Pence took a confident, combative tone, calling rival Ramaswamy a "rookie," and saying the White House wasn't the moment for "on the job training." Christie likewise dismissed Ramaswamy, saying he sounded like "ChatGPT" and calling him "the same type of amateur as Barack Obama." Ramaswamy shot back asking if Christie would hug him, a reference to Christie working with and greeting warmly then-President Barack Obama's cooperation in responding to Hurricane Sandy in 2016.
Alexander Diaz, a student from The Catholic University of America in Washington, asked a question about how each candidate would respond to climate change, which caused a stir among candidates.
In lighter moments, Burgum quipped about his own injury, having suffered an Achilles injury the previous day, joking that he took the term "break a leg" too seriously. Christie reacted with humor when MacCallum asked him whether he would "level with the American people" about "possible encounters" with aliens.
Christie said the president's job is to stand for truth "whether it's UFOs" or other issues.
Instead of participating in the GOP debate, Trump opted for a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. In that interview, Trump repeated his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him and criticized Fox for not being "particularly friendly to me." Carlson was fired earlier this year from his role at Fox News in the aftermath of that company's $787.5 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems concerning the network's false claims covering the 2020 election.