The first Republican presidential primary debate for the 2024 race was … chaotic.
The eight candidates fed on the energy of the raucous Milwaukee audience, which repeatedly drowned out the candidates with cheers and jeers as the White House hopefuls sparred over Donald Trump (who skipped the debate to do an online interview with Tucker Carlson instead), abortion, Ukraine and climate change. Pocketbook issues like high inflation, the housing crisis, student loan debt and Social Security got little to no screentime during this first debate.
Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum struggled to keep both the crowd and the candidates in line, with the GOP contenders interrupting each other and talking beyond their allotted time per question throughout the night.
GOP debate live blog: Republican presidential candidates spar over Trump, abortion, Ukraine
Here are the most viral moments and highlights from the GOP debate, for anyone who missed out or who was flipping back and forth between the debate on Fox News and the pre-taped Trump interview on former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s X newsfeed:
Christie calls out Ramaswamy for ‘sounding like ChatGPT’ and copying Obama
While former New Jersey Gov. Christie drew plenty of boos throughout the night, he got a zinger in against Vivek Ramaswamy early in the night.
Ramaswamy had introduced himself at the top of the debate with the self-deprecating line, “Let me just address the question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight: Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name, and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage?” Which, as plenty of viewers following along on X (formerly Twitter) noted, was almost word-for-word what former President Barack Obama said during the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, when he referred to himself as, “a skinny kid with a funny name.”
After Ramaswamy called climate change a “hoax” during Wednesday night’s debate, Christie interrupted to say he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” before calling Ramaswamy an “amateur” Obama. “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. And I am afraid we are dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight,” he said.
Nikki Haley scored applause with a Margaret Thatcher line
The only woman on the debate stage drew inspiration from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in taking a few swings at her male opponents.
This goes back to the climate-change question mentioned above: The candidates were asked to give a show of hands for whether they believed that human behavior has contributed to climate change. Before anyone could raise their hands, however, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said they should debate this fully on stage. While DeSantis took the opportunity to criticize Biden’s response to the Maui wildfires, Ramaswamy called climate change a “hoax,” and Christie called Ramaswamy “ChatGPT.”
So Nikki Haley stepped in to reset the conversation back to the original question. “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,’” Haley said, drawing applause.
“Is climate change real?” Haley asked. “Yes, it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
Would the candidates support Trump as nominee if he’s convicted? Well…
The candidates have all signed a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee for president. But apparently there’s some exceptions to this rule for at least one or two GOP contenders.
The moderators asked, by a show of hands, who would still support Trump if he was the GOP nominee and if he was convicted in a court of law as part of one of the four indictments he’s facing for charges related to his handling of confidential documents, hush-money payments and attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Ramaswamy’s hand shot up in the air first, and one by one the other candidates. But Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson kept his hand down. And Christie raised his hand slightly, but said he was more wagging his finger.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said, to a mix of applause and boos. “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.”
Hutchinson said that Trump was “morally disqualified from being president again as a result of what happened on Jan. 6.” He continued, “So, obviously, I’m not going to support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony or who has been disqualified under our Constitution and that’s consistent with RNC rules — and I hope everybody would agree.”
Christie added that one of the great things about this country is that “booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth” — which got a loud chorus of boos.
Candidates clash over Ukraine, with Haley telling Ramaswamy ‘you have no foreign policy experience and it shows’
Another area where the eight candidates butted heads was whether the U.S. should support Ukraine.
Ramaswamy and DeSantis were both vocal about cutting off U.S. financial aid for Ukraine, and sending those resources to secure America’s border with Mexico instead. DeSantis said Europe should be doing more: “I would have Europe step up and do their job.” And Ramaswamy called out politicians like Pence and Christie for visiting Ukraine. “I find it offensive that we have professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelensky, without doing the same for the people in Maui or the south side of Chicago,” he said.
Haley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued that supporting Ukraine against Russia is a matter of national security for the U.S., and accused Ramaswamy of being willing to “hand Ukraine to Russia” and “let China eat Taiwan.”
“You are choosing a murderer [Putin] over a pro-American country,” she said. “You have no foreign-policy experience, and it shows. It shows,” she said, to huge applause.
Christie got stuck with the UFO question. ‘C’mon, man!’
During the lightning round at the end of the debate, moderator MacCallum hit Christie with a “little out-of-this-world” question about the recent UFO testimony in Congress: “If you were president, Gov. Christie, would you level with the American people about what the government knows about these encounters?”
Christie’s response — “I get the UFO question? C’mon, man!” — got a big laugh from the crowd. But his answer was, “Look, the job of the president of the United States is to level with the American people about everything. The job of the president of the United States is to stand for truth.”
For a deeper dive into the first GOP debate, check out these pieces on MarketWatch: Republican presidential debate: Haley impresses, as Pence, Ramaswamy also score points
As well as what Trump was up to: Trump calls his four indictments ‘nonsense’ during Tucker Carlson interview airing opposite the GOP debate.
And follow the live blog recap here.