MILWAUKEE — A stormy Republican clash here Wednesday kicked off the 2024 debate season — even if the biggest name wasn’t on the stage.
Former President Trump’s decision not to participate in the Fox News debate at the Fiserv Forum overshadowed the event and likely lowered its ratings.
Trump did not entirely cede the spotlight, though. His conversation with Tucker Carlson went live on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, five minutes before the debate began.
Trump will be back centerstage on Thursday, when he surrenders to authorities in Georgia, facing his fourth criminal indictment.
The Milwaukee debate gave his rivals a rare opportunity to reach a huge audience without the former president directly intervening or interrupting.
Here are the winners and losers from the big night.
Former Vice President Pence
Pence had struggled to qualify for the debate, taking a conspicuously long time to get over the required threshold of donors.
But he was the surprise winner on Wednesday night with a number of forceful interventions. He also got an unexpected assist in the shape of a question to all the candidates about his actions on Jan. 6, 2021.
Several rivals paid tribute, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to Pence’s actions certifying the result of the 2020 election and withstanding Trump’s pressure to overturn it.
At other moments, Pence’s fieriness — especially when directed at Vivek Ramaswamy — was the most startling element of the night.
Early on, Pence said in a clear swipe at the 38-year-old Ramaswamy, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”
Pence was also effective in reminding anti-abortion voters of his long record on that topic, quoting Biblical scripture to back up his position.
Pence faces enormous challenges in the primary, not least unfavorable numbers with GOP voters that are higher than almost any other candidate.
But Wednesday was the best night of his campaign to date.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Christie got in the cleanest shot of the night, soon after Ramaswamy boasted that he was the only candidate on the stage “not bought and paid for.”
An exasperated Christie jabbed back, “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like Chat GPT.”
With that line, Christie may have found the weak spot in Ramaswamy’s armor just as he did when he attacked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in a similar debate almost eight years ago.
Christie also emphasized his differences with Trump, of course.
He is the most aggressively anti-Trump candidate in the race — a fact which, by itself, almost certainly dooms him to defeat.
Speaking of Trump’s multiple indictments, Christie said that whether people believed the former president’s actions were criminal or not, “Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct, OK?”
A huge swath of the GOP base will hate what Christie had to say. But in terms of debating skill, his was probably the most impressive performance on the stage.
Fox News’ moderators
Fox came into the debate under several pressures.
Memories are still fresh of the $787 million defamation settlement it reached with Dominion Voting Systems in April. Carlson’s removal from its schedule dismayed a significant segment of the audience. Trump continues to aim intermittent fire at the network as well.
But Fox had a good night Wednesday, thanks to co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.
The duo allowed clashes to run unimpeded when appropriate but also kept overall control of the proceedings — including, on one occasion, Baier turning around to admonish the crowd for excessive reactions.
More importantly, their adroit questions about Pence and Jan. 6, Ukraine and abortion all elicited enlightening answers.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley
Perceptions of debates can often be determined by memorable moments.
By that standard, Haley had a good night.
She staked out different ground than her rivals on abortion, expressing skepticism about a federal ban at an early stage of pregnancy and about the role of Supreme Court justices in deciding “something this personal.”
She starkly branded Trump “the most disliked politician in America” to make the argument that the GOP cannot win with him as its standard bearer.
But her single biggest moment came in a blast at Ramaswamy over the entrepreneur’s deep skepticism about funding for Ukraine.
Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, she told Ramaswamy, “This guy is a murderer and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.”
When Ramaswamy tried to defend himself, Haley poured more pressure on: “You have no foreign policy experience — and it shows,” she told him.
It seems near-certain that Ramaswamy is the candidate whose performance will most divide opinion.
It’s easy to see why his supporters could make the case that he shone. He’s clearly different, he withstood some heavy verbal blows and he offers a candidacy uniquely in step with the sensibilities of a new, younger generation.
The degree to which Ramaswamy was targeted by other candidates is also a backhanded compliment to the threat he poses.
But the entrepreneur also seemed shallow at times, especially on Ukraine and in his craven promise to pardon Trump of any convictions if elected president.
There is also a question-mark around his overall demeanor. The traits that his fans see as confidence and clarity can just as easily read as self-satisfaction and glibness.
Ramaswamy might get a polling boost simply from being able to introduce himself to such a large audience.
But his weaknesses were badly exposed as well.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
DeSantis arrived in Milwaukee needing a big night. He didn’t get it.
It wasn’t that the Florida governor made any obvious gaffes. But he didn’t have any great moments either and, more importantly, he didn’t impose himself on the debate at any point.
For long stretches, DeSantis faded into the background of the debate.
That is a big problem, since his whole campaign is predicated on being the sole alternative to Trump.
DeSantis’s campaign has been trending downward since its beginning and there was no real reason to believe that Wednesday night’s performance, which often sounded over-rehearsed, changed that.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)
The Republican field already has an identifiable second tier behind Trump, DeSantis and the rising Ramaswamy. It’s comprised of Pence, Haley and Scott.
Scott had the least impressive night of the trio. The South Carolina senator is well-liked by many Republicans but his low-key affability isn’t ideal for contentious debate nights.
Scott tried to stay above the fray, at one point intervening in a Christie-Ramaswamy verbal tussle to insist: “Going back and forth being childish is not helpful to the American people.”
But for the most part, though, Scott simply lacked impact.
He was also eclipsed by Haley, which is dangerous for him. Given their similarities, including a shared, electorally crucial home-state, there likely isn’t enough room for both candidates to thrive in the long run.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
It was always going to be a tough night for the two lowest-polling candidates, stuck on the farthest edges of the stage.
Neither got a breakout moment.
The greatest excitement relating to Burgum was whether he would make the stage at all, having suffered a basketball injury earlier in the day that required a hospital visit.
Hutchinson made his usual Trump criticisms, even saying that the 14th Amendment may bar the former president from running again, given its injunction against anyone holding office who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion.”
He was met with boos for those remarks.
Still, the biggest question Burgum and Hutchinson face is how to make themselves relevant.
Neither found the answer on Wednesday.