The deep-seated divisions within the US Republican party took center stage on a dramatic night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as eight presidential candidates engaged in a heated debate. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner, sought to steal the limelight with a pre-recorded interview on X (formerly known as Twitter) alongside ousted Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Trump, confident in his commanding poll numbers, defended his decision to skip the debate and took shots at several rivals. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, his closest competitor in the polls, was dismissed as a “lost cause.” Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson was labeled “weak and pathetic,” and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie earned the moniker of “a savage maniac…a lunatic.”
Nikki Haley Joined debates (video credit: social media/twitter)
Amid the debate, candidates clashed over economic policy and climate change. DeSantis painted a picture of America in “decline,” while Christie pledged to reintroduce “truth and accountability” to Washington. Other contenders, like South Carolina senator Tim Scott, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, and former vice-president Mike Pence, positioned themselves as small-government conservatives committed to reducing government spending.
Tensions flared as Pence challenged biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, asserting that he was too young and inexperienced for the presidency. “Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence argued. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”
Chris Christie also took a swipe at Ramaswamy, who has been rising in the polls, remarking, “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.”
This debate unfolded on the eve of Trump’s scheduled surrender to Georgia authorities, facing a litany of criminal charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Trump reiterated his unsubstantiated claims of election rigging and hinted at the potential for political violence.
Despite mounting legal troubles, Trump continues to enjoy significant support in the Republican primary race, with national polls showing over half of Republican voters backing him. DeSantis lags far behind in second place, with Ramaswamy in third. Pence, Scott, Haley, Christie, Hutchinson, and North Dakota’s governor Doug Burgum trail with single-digit support.
The debate represented a pivotal moment for candidates striving to rejuvenate their campaigns. DeSantis aimed to revitalize his bid after public missteps and staff changes, while also anticipating a barrage of attacks from his rivals in Trump’s absence.
Ramaswamy entered the debate under increased scrutiny following recent comments suggesting potential US government involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks. Despite this, most candidates, including Pence, who distanced himself from Trump after January 6, 2021, have been hesitant to directly criticize the former president.
Trump’s presence loomed large over the Milwaukee event, with his team openly boasting about their strategy to dominate the evening. Campaign adviser Chris LaCivita asserted that “everything is going to be about him” and emphasized their plan to tally the number of times Trump’s name was mentioned, even though he wasn’t physically present. The candidates, when they did speak, were seen as echoing or emulating Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda.