Republican debate highlights and analysis: Fiery faceoff on Trump, Ukraine and more

The first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential primary was held in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.

Eight candidates qualified for a spot on the stage: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

Missing from the event was the primary's early front-runner: former President Donald Trump, who declined to participate and instead released a pre-recorded interview with Tucker Carlson.

ABC News and FiveThirtyEight live-blogged every major moment and highlight from the debate, aired on Fox News, with FiveThirtyEight providing analysis and a closer look at the polling and data behind the politicians. PolitiFact made real-time fact checks of key statements.

Latest Developments

Aug 24, 12:13 AM

Biden mentioned 10 more times than Trump

President Joe Biden was mentioned and attacked by candidates at the debate much more than former president and current candidate Trump was, a rough real-time ABC News count shows -- with Biden mentioned at least 10 more times than Trump.

Ramaswamy seemingly faced the most attacks from other candidates at the debate, followed by DeSantis and Pence.

Burgum and Hutchinson faced effectively no direct attacks from other candidates.

PHOTO: Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy and former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley gesture as they speak during the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Aug. 23, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy and former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley gesture as they speak during the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Aug. 23, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

-ABC News' Oren Oppenheim

Aug 23, 11:21 PM

FiveThirtyEighty takeaway: Same as it ever was

Let me put my wannabe political scientist's hat on for a second. We heard a lot tonight about what ails America: crime, climate change, inflation, bureaucracy (some issues are more persuasive than others). And the candidates presented various visions for combating those issues — again, some more persuasive than others! But as is always the case, a lot of what we see in these debates is just theater. There are serious doubts that these contests can really accomplish most of what these candidates are trying to sell — indeed, some of the problems may come down to the structure of these primaries in general. Next time, if the candidates are trying to run for president, they should really just stick to talking about their electability.
-Analysis by G Elliott Morris of FiveThirtyEight

Aug 23, 11:18 PM

FiveThirtyEight takeaways: Christie fights, Scott struggles to break through

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pugnacious Christie repeatedly mixed it up with other candidates tonight. He was critical of Trump, calling the front-runner's behavior "unbecoming" and making him unfit to be president. Christie has a track record of strong debates, having shown in 2016 how he can throw a verbal punch, including his famous takedown of Marco Rubio just ahead of the New Hampshire primary that year. But Christie's criticism of Trump and his high unfavorable ratings among Republicans make his performance unlikely to cause a Christie boomlet in this race.

For Scott, tonight was an opportunity to capitalize on his potential as a candidate who is well-liked by Republicans familiar with him but who is not that well-known. And he largely tried to stay above the fray on most issues, which in theory made sense if he wanted to look like a consensus-style candidate who most Republicans could like. However, that also led to him getting less airtime, as the candidates who engaged each other and freely interrupted were more likely to be on camera. This debate doesn't hurt Scott, but I'm skeptical it helped him much.

-Analysis by Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight

Aug 23, 11:15 PM

FiveThirtyEight takeaway: Haley delivers fireworks, but is it enough?

Nikki Haley has been in the race for longer than anyone else on the stage but hasn't had a breakout moment yet. She was clearly aiming to change that tonight, and she did have one of the most memorable back-and-forths of the night when she took Ramaswamy to task over his lack of foreign policy experience. She came out swinging early not just against Biden but against Republicans in Congress, and she was one of just a handful of contenders to make an electability argument against Trump by pointing out his low favorability ratings. But for a candidate who is polling at 3.4 percent nationwide, it's not obvious that was enough.

Burgum's presence was a victory in and of itself for the governor, given his injury today. But he got scant talking time, and his most interesting answer, when he came out definitively against a national abortion ban, isn't likely to earn him many new fans in the GOP.

But here's what I really think. The next debate is not for another month, but tomorrow, Donald Trump will surrender to the authorities in Atlanta. His mugshot will ricochet across the internet and land on the front page of every major newspaper in the country. At that point, will people be talking about tonight's debate? Or will they be back to talking about Trump? I'd put my money on the latter, and that's not good news for anyone on stage tonight.
-Analysis by Jacob Rubashkin, Inside Elections

Aug 23, 11:11 PM

FiveThirtyEight takeaway: DeSantis did well, Ramaswamy a wild card

I was watching DeSantis tonight, and overall I think he did well. Despite perhaps underestimating the strength of his mic (he came across several times like he was yelling), DeSantis came across as confident and didn’t have any of the awkward moments that have gotten him bad attention on the campaign trail. In terms of substance, he turned the conversation toward issue areas that play to his strengths, like COVID-19, wokeness in education and natural disaster leadership.

That said, according to our FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll, Republicans already had pretty high expectations for DeSantis in this debate, so maybe his good performance won’t change their priors. (We’ll have to wait for the second wave of our poll to know for sure!) Really what I’m watching for after this debate is what happens to Ramaswamy. Like I wrote earlier, I think he’s the main story of this debate, but I don’t think I have a good handle on whether his performance will be received well or poorly.

-Analysis by Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight

Aug 23, 11:04 PM

Will anything change following the first primary debate?

I think Geoffrey has this exactly right: It seemed a little like the candidates were playing pretend tonight by ignoring Trump. But they’re in a tough position, politically. Someone needs to go after Trump in order to open up space for another potential nominee, but going after Trump is also extremely unattractive to GOP voters. That combination keeps Trump in a strong position as the front-runner.

At this point, the question isn’t who will be the alternative to Trump, but whether Republicans will produce an alternative nominee to Trump at all. DeSantis needed to prove tonight that he could live up to the initial hype around him, that he was Republicans’ clear alternative to nominating Trump. But there didn’t seem to be a breakout moment for him. A handful of others — like Haley and Pence — had some strong moments, but we’ll have to wait for polling to see whether those actually resonated with voters. Otherwise, it’s more of the same – which is good news for Trump.

-Analysis by Leah Askarinam of FiveThirtyEight

Aug 23, 11:01 PM


It's not too surprising to me that Trump didn't come up much tonight except when explicitly pushed by the moderators. A lot of Republicans -- certainly GOP officeholders -- really don't like talking about Trump and never have. Tonight they were given the opportunity to pretend like Trump isn't in the race or the defining story of the election, and of course they took advantage of it. I bet it felt like a relief, even if it wasn't really moored in reality.
-Analysis by Jacob Rubashkin, Inside Elections

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