Impressions of the first 2024 Republican presidential debate

Milwaukee played host to the first Republican presidential primary debate before the 2024 election, and observers share thoughts on the candidates, issues and importance of Wisconsin as a swing state.

By Steven Potter | Here & Now

August 25, 2023

FacebookRedditGoogle ClassroomEmail

Eight Republican presidential candidates faced off in their first debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, giving voters the best look at the party’s slate of hopefuls for the 2024 election.

Bryan Stern, who attended the debate, didn’t quite get what he was looking for.

“As a voter, I didn’t walk away completely sold or completely put off by anyone really,” he said.

For attendee Timothy Sirois, it was both entertaining and informative.

“It was comical at a point and I saw aspects of some of the competitors that I hadn’t heard before,” he said.

The eight candidates on stage at the Fiserv Forum were, in alphabetical order: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Political scientist Mordecai Lee said Republicans have an impressively deep bench of candidates.

“With Wisconsin being 49.9% Democratic and 49.9% Republicans, I think for the Democrats who are watching, the moral of the story is be afraid, be very afraid,” said Lee, a professor emeritus at UW-Milwaukee.

While former President Donald Trump wasn’t there, his presence was felt.

“He was in the room, even though he wasn’t in the room,” said debate attendee Jesse Ehrenfeld. “I was a little disappointed that he didn’t show up, although I think we need a different president.”

“I am leaning towards Trump but without him here, I thought it would be a good time to hear loudly from the other candidates,” said attendee Jan Conwell.

In terms of issues, one of the most disagreeable exchanges of the night was on abortion.

“I will support the cause of life as governor and as president,” proclaimed DeSantis.

Haley took a different tack.

“Let’s find consensus,” she said. “Let’s treat this like the respectful issue that it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation.”

Pence fired back at that approach.

“Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he said. “When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn’t just send it to the states only – it’s not a states only issue. It’s a moral issue.”

Another hot-button issue at the debate was climate change.

Ramaswamy declared “the climate change agenda is a hoax,” which drew boos from the crowd.

“First of all: Yes – Is climate change real? Yes, it is,” Haley said. “But if you want to really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”

The candidates were also asked if they would still support the Republican front-runner — former President Donald Trump — despite the felony charges stacking up against him.

Christie immediately went on the offensive.

“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” he declared. “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.”

Ramaswamy felt very differently.

“President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Democrats weren’t impressed with any candidate at the debate.

“[This is] a group of people that really didn’t seem to recognize why Republicans lost in 2020, in 2022 and especially this spring in Wisconsin in the Supreme Court election,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “The public doesn’t like this kind of extremism.”

Politics professor Lee said debates like this one give voters around the nation a chance to choose their top tier candidates ahead of the spring 2024 primaries, including in Wisconsin on April 2.

“If you’ve got three that you like in a certain priority, there’s a decent chance that at least one of them will be standing and still in the race by the time April comes around,” he said.

Statement to the Communities We Serve

There is no place for racism in our society. We must work together as a community to ensure we no longer teach, or tolerate it.  Read the full statement.