Home / Blog / Republican debate recap: Highlights as GOP candidates face off

Republican debate recap: Highlights as GOP candidates face off

Jun 03, 2023Jun 03, 2023

Eight Republican presidential candidates battled Wednesday over Ukraine, abortion and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as they gathered in Milwaukee for their first primary debate of the 2024 cycle.

With frontrunner Donald Trump absent, Vivek Ramaswamy took a lot of heat, with Mike Pence calling him a "rookie" and Chris Christie attacking him as an "amateur."

During a 14-minute discussion, most of the GOP candidates said they would still support Trump, even if he is convicted of crimes and still wins the Republican nomination. They also said GOP voters are tiring of all the drama surrounding the former president.

"We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America," said former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. "We can’t win a general election that way."

Two GOP candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, again said that Trump's indictments disqualify him from leadership of the party or nation.

"Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct," Christie said, drawing boos from the crowd at a sports arena in downtown Milwaukee.

On the stage in Milwaukee, most of the attacks went against businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, an upstart who has seen his poll numbers rise. Rivals like former Vice President Mike Pence hit Ramaswamy on his lack of government experience. Ramaswamy called than an asset.

DeSantis, who is second to Trump in many polls, emerged from the debate relatively unscathed, but had no memorable quotes. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum used the debate to promote their own platforms.

Some highlights from debate day:

When asked whether an elected president should pass a mental or physical test if above a certain age, Pence, 64, said Americans can make their own judgment. But he added that the country doesn’t need a president who’s too old, or a president who’s too young.

Rather, he said that the country needs a president who’s been there and knows how the government works.

Vivek Ramaswamy, 38 and the youngest candidate on the debate stage, said that there needs to be a person of a different generation leading the country forward, and that he is the only candidate to do that.

−Sudiksha Kochi

Several of the Republican candidates showed their support for eliminating the federal Department of Education.

“We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country,” Ron DeSantis said.

Ramaswamy agreed that the Department of Education should be shut down and said he supports parents choosing where they send their kids to schools. He said he believes high school students should have to pass a civics test, like individuals in the process of becoming American citizens.

Doug Burgum, also in favor of removing the Department of Education, said the country forgets that education differs by state. He emphasized the need for schools to innovate.

Nikki Haley pushed for transparency in the classroom.

“There’s a lot of crazy, woke things happening in schools,” she said, later adding, “Parents need to be deciding which schools their kids go to because they know best.”

- Rachel Looker

The former governor of New Jersey took umbrage at a "lighting round" question on whether presidents should "level" with the American people about UFOs.

"I get the UFO question? C'mon, man," Christie told Fox News' Martha MacCallum.

He did answer the question by saying: “The job of the president of United States is to level with the American people about everything."

− David Jackson

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence tore into entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy for saying he’d freeze the current lines of control in Ukraine in return for a promise from Russia that it would not form a military alliance with China.

Pence told Ramaswamy “if we do the giveaway that you want to” and give Putin eastern Ukraine, “it's not going to be too long” before he rolls across the border into a NATO nation.

“Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy argued, raising China as a bigger threat.

Haley argued that a win for Russia is a win for China and said Ukraine is the first line of defense.

“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Haley told Ramaswamy.

– Francesca Chambers

Mike Pence got some back up for the issue that has been the biggest anchor on his candidacy: his refusal to interfere in the congressional counting of electoral college votes as Donald Trump wanted.

Asked if Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, other candidates said he did – though it took longer for some to get there than others.

After Ron DeSantis tried to dodge the question, Pence said the American people deserve to know if everyone on stage would’ve done what he did.

“Answer the question,” Pence said.

“Mike did his duty,” DeSantis responded. “I’ve got no beef with him.”

Pence got his biggest backing from Chris Christie who said the former vice president stood up for the Constitution and deserves thanks, “not grudging credit.”

– Maureen Groppe

Donald Trump’s indictments over his handling of classified documents and the 2020 election have raised the question among his GOP rivals of whether they would pardon the former president if they're elected.

Vivek Ramaswamy said on the debate stage that he would pardon Trump, a position he has long held. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she was "inclined in favor" of a pardon in an interview, though Haley noted that the discussions were still premature.

Former Vice President Mike Pence said pardons would only be appropriate to weigh if Trump was found guilty. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Trump’s two most vocal critics, have leaned against a pardon.

– Sudiksha Kochi

During the 14-minute discussion of Donald Trump's legal problems, Nikki Haley was the only candidate who mentioned a political issue: His ability to win a general election.

"We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America," Haley said. "We can’t win a general election that way."

Trump will no doubt disagree with this assessment, but don't be surprised if other GOP candidates echo Haley's argument in the coming weeks.

− David Jackson

The first Trump question came at 9:56 p.m., eastern, nearly an hour in: Would you support him if he is convicted?

Most of the candidates raised their hands, while Christie raised an objection.

"Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct," Christie said, drawing boos from the crowd and criticism from Ramaswamy, who said the Justice Department is being weaponized against Trump.

Scott also criticized the Justice Department. So did DeSantis, though he said the party also needs to stop talking about this and look forward - presumably with him as president.

− David Jackson

Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy went at it again, this time over the moral climate of the nation.

Pence bashed Ramaswamy over his negativity, saying "we just need government as good as our people."

Ramaswamy's reply: "It is not morning in America. We are living in a dark moment and we have to confront that," an apparent reference to former President Ronald Reagan.

− David Jackson

Nikki Haley and Mike Pence’s exchange on abortion shows the hopscotch Republicans have to deal with since the Supreme Court knocked down Roe v. Wade.

Six states have had reproductive rights questions on their ballot since then, and liberals have won all of those.

On the stage, most of the GOP contenders talked about a 15-week national ban being the standard, but Ron DeSantis talked up signing a 6-week ban in Florida. At one point Tim Scott, who often talks about his anti-abortion views, said that Congress should aim for a 15-week ban at least.

But others such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, don’t support a federal prohibition at all, saying it should be left up to the states.

Each touted how they are a “pro-life” candidate, but there isn’t a uniform standard.

— Phillip M. Bailey

Nikki Haley tried to argue to Republicans that they need to be honest with Americans when discussing a national abortion ban. Because any federal legislation will require 60 votes in the Senate, she said, party leaders should be trying to find a consensus on abortion issues, such as banning later abortions and agreeing not to jail women who get them.

Mike Pence, the strongest anti-abortion advocate on the stage, wasn’t having it.

“Nikki, you’re my friend,” Pence said, “but consensus is the opposite of leadership.”

Pence said abortion is not an issue for the states to decide.

“It’s a moral issue,” he said.

– Maureen Groppe

After more than 45 minutes, the debate moderators, and the candidates, have yet to discuss a big campaign issue: Donald Trump.

Mike Pence made passing references to the president who put him on the ticket in 2016, but neither he nor his rivals mentioned Trump's indictments or big poll leads.

− David Jackson

Vivek Ramaswamy during the debate claimed that climate change is a hoax, but that is inaccurate.

There is a wide range of proof that climate change is real, including research on increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels and and decreasing Antarctic ice sheets.

Scientific data show warming has accelerated since the mid-20th century and that human activities have contributed to that trend.

− Sudiksha Kochi

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie didn’t hesitate to attack entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy after the candidates were asked whether they believe in climate change.

“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like Chat GPT stand up here…” Christie said, interrupting Ramaswamy.

“The last person at one of these debates who stood in the middle of the stage and said, 'what’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing here' was Barack Obama, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie added.

- Rachel Looker

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott sought to bring order to all the noise, telling colleagues that "going back and forth" and "being childish" will not help the American people.

His opponents are likely to continue being feisty.

− David Jackson

As several of the candidates traded insults, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley saw a chance to draw attention to her status as the only woman on stage.

“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.

– Maureen Groppe

Pedro Mateo, 29, said he thinks the debate will be more about setting the stage for determining a vice president or even 2028 candidate.

“I don’t think anyone on the stage really has the sway to upend Trump,” Mateo said.

Mateo is the chairman of the political engagement committee for Young Greenville, a Republican club in South Carolina. He said regardless of who ultimately wins the nomination, he’ll support any candidate over the Democratic opponent.

− Savannah Kuchar

So far, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is getting the most heat, with former Vice President Mike Pence attacking him for a lack of government experience.

After Pence called the rising Republican a "rookie," Ramaswamy said his business background is a better asset to lead a "revolution."

"We're just going to have some fun tonight," he said.

Later, several candidates hooted at Ramaswamy for claiming he is the only candidate not "bought and paid for." Chris Christie compared him to another guy with a "funny name:" Barack Obama.

− David Jackson

Whereas the other candidates played nice when they first spoke, Nikki Haley wasn’t having it.

The former South Carolina governor, who is the lone women running for the GOP nomination, drew first blood by attacking her rivals for supporting COVID-19 stimulus spending.

“The truth is that Biden didn't do this to us, our Republicans did this to us too,” she said.

Haley mentioned multiple candidates on the stage by name and Trump when slamming Republicans for raising the U.S. debt and supporting earmarks.

“You tell me who are the big spenders,” she said. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.”

– Phillip M. Bailey

The moderators opened with a question about a song that bemoans the state of the nation. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used it as an excuse to bash President Joe Biden, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie followed suit.

The eight candidates on stage were quick to criticize Biden over a slate of economic issues, from inflation to job opportunities.

– David Jackson

The candidates were introduced in the order of their place in political polls: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

DeSantis and Ramaswamy are first and second, so they are in the center. They are flanked by Pence, Haley, Christie, Scott, Hutchinson and Burgum.

– David Jackson

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp remains one of the few popular Republicans who won’t spare Donald Trump a criticism.

Kemp, who is mentioned as a possible 2024 contender, trekked to Wisconsin for the first GOP debate. He said the former president, who remains the clear front-runner, is making a big mistake by not joining the discussion.

“Fight it out,” Kemp said on a podcast appearance.

— Phillip M. Bailey

Even though Kenneth Biel has narrowed down his vote for a few specific candidates in New Hampshire’s crucial first-in-the-nation primary, the debate he said, could sway him.

“I’m open to hearing somebody change my mind,” said the 47-year-old software engineer from Chester. Biel said he is eyeing former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. But if a different candidate has a standout performance, the debate could change his mind.

“I’d like to see how everybody conducts themselves,” Biel said, adding he’s open to “people who I disagree with.”

− Ken Tran

Former President Donald Trump will be skipping the first Republican primary debate, citing his lead in GOP polls.

The former president had previously hinted he would not attend the event in Milwaukee, saying he did not want to give trailing rivals free shots at him on a debate stage.

“The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had," Trump said Sunday on his Truth Social platform, before adding: "I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”

Meanwhile, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson posted his taped interview of Trump on the X social media site at 8:55 p.m., eastern.

– Rachel Looker and David Jackson

Ahead of Wednesday’s debate, the Biden campaign mocked former President Donald Trump for taking part in a “softball” interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson that will air online simultaneously.

“In his softball 'interview' posting tonight, Donald Trump will again make clear that he’s running on the same extreme and deeply unpopular MAGA agenda the American people have rejected time and time again,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement.

Munoz said that instead of explaining his “broken promises” to bring manufacturing jobs to Wisconsin, Trump will likely “double down on his most out-of-touch positions, including his support for wild, debunked conspiracy theories and a national abortion ban.”

The Biden campaign has circled the first Republican primary debate as an opportunity to ramp up their attacks against the GOP field after staying mostly quiet since Biden announced his reelection bid in April.

– Joey Garrison

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive $400 billion in student loan debt, a move 2024 GOP candidates applauded.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley wrote on X that a president “cannot just wave his hand and eliminate loans for students he favors.” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has supported legislation prohibiting Biden from cancelling student loan debt.

Likewise, biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also supported the court’s decision, sharing at the time: "We have a bad habit in America of paying people to do the exact opposite of what we want them to do."

− Sudiksha Kochi

Was that fair criticism or cherry-picked data? An accurate description or a baseless conspiracy theory?

The USA TODAY Fact Check Team will dig into key claims from the candidates as they make them during tonight’s Republican primary debate. Follow our live fact-check file as we dig through the data, documents and transcripts to sort fact from fiction.

Fact-checking the GOP debate: What the Republican candidate hopefuls get right and wrong

− Eric Litke

GOP candidates will be eager to demonstrate they have the best chance of beating President Joe Biden in the general election.

A strategy memo put together by Ron DeSantis’ political action committee, which the candidate and his campaign have denounced, suggested the Florida governor focus his attacks on the Democratic president.

Debaters will need little prompting to criticize Biden, although entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and several others have said they intend to use the primetime event to introduce themselves to voters and make the case for their own candidacies. Vice President Kamala Harris is also likely to be a target. DeSantis has been sparring with Harris over slavery, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has been critical of the vice president’s record. Haley has made a point of arguing that if anything happens to Biden, who is 80, Harris would succeed him as president.

– Francesca Chambers

It's party time in Milwaukee: the Republican Party. As the debate approaches, ticket holders, Republican supporters and curious bystanders are enjoying the restaurant-and-bar areas near the city's sports arena.

Others have more organized activities.

More than 100 union members marched behind the arena, promoting labor rights and chanting "we are the union/the mighty, mighty union." Another chant included the line "Republicans hear our call!"

Down the avenue, an old-fashioned fife-and-drum corps led a group of Vivek Ramaswamy supporters dressed in Revolutionary War-era garb, topped by bonnets and tri-cornered hats, all in 99 degree weather.

Special guests gathered in the plaza right beside Fiserv Forum, the home of professional basketball's Milwaukee Bucks. Food trucks, television tents, and a bandstand dotted the "Block Party" hosted by Young America's Foundation, one of the debate sponsors.

− David Jackson

Hours before the first Republican presidential debate even began, Donald Trump’s campaign was claiming victory, mocking his rivals and the network hosting the event.

“President Trump has already won this evening’s debate because everything is going to be about him,” Chris LaCivita, who serves as a campaign senior adviser, said in a statement Wednesday.

LaCivita added how Fox News hosts will "show an unnatural obsession" with Trump by asking the other GOP contenders their reaction to the front-runner's policy positions. He said the campaign will even be looking for how many times the former president's name is brought up.

“In fact, tonight’s Republican undercard event really shouldn’t even be called a debate, but rather an audition to be a part of President Trump’s team in his second term," he said.

— Phillip M. Bailey

Which candidate were Googlers most curious about leading up to the debate? That would be political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy.

He was the subject of 40% of searches for candidates by name this past week, according to Google. Former President Donald Trump was next at 33%.

Then there was a drop-off in interest with everyone else appearing in no more than 10% of searches.

Mike Pence, Trump’s former running mate, was last at 1%.

– Maureen Groppe

When the candidates go after Joe Biden on the debate stage tonight, there’s a good chance they’ll bring up inflation. Although price increases have cooled over the past year, pocketbooks are still pinched and Republicans love to blame Biden.

Some of the candidates have been more specific than others about what they would do differently.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has an entire “Ending Inflation” plan that includes specific spending cuts, such as eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Pence and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy want to change how the Federal Reserve manages the economy.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has backed a proposal to bar Congress from passing any legislation that would increase inflation when the inflation rate is 4.5% or higher.

– Maureen Groppe

From the tennis courts – entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called his tennis practice this week “three hours of solid debate prep” – to the basketball courts – North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum tore his Achilles tendon while playing basketball. GOP candidates employed a range of tactics to prepare for the debate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis brought in debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who has experience prepping former President George W. Bush, former Arizona Sen. John McCain and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney for debates.

Others like former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley relied on their prior political experience, with Pence falling back on the way he approached one-on-one vice presidential debates in 2016 and 2020 and Haley relying on her experience from 80 town halls she held in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sen. Tim Scott will likely lean into his faith and role as the "nice guy” in the race. Scott campaign spokesperson Nichole Morales told USA TODAY earlier this week he “will share his positive, conservative message on the debate stage in Milwaukee.”

– USA TODAY staff

Fact-checking the GOP debate:What the Republican candidate hopefuls got right and wrong

The Republican presidential campaigns aren't the only political organizations in town for the debate − advocacy groups are also hanging around the city's pro basketball arena promoting their issues.

Economic conservatives, like the Club For Growth, and social conservatives, like the Faith & Freedom Coalition are represented in Milwaukee to lobby lawmakers and candidates, many of whom they back with money and voter turnout.

"We want to make sure they hear what our message is," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

It's not just conservative groups taking advantage of the big political event.

Death Penalty Action, which describes itself as the only national organization strictly focused on stopping the death penalty, is also in town solicitating support for a national ban on capital punishment.

− David Jackson

Republicans agree on what they argue is an urgent need to combat the military and economic threat from China. But that’s where their agreement on the issue ends.

The United States has traditionally had a policy of strategic ambiguity on whether it would send troops to Taiwan to defend the island in the face of a Chinese invasion. Former Vice President Mike Pence supports this policy and says the U.S. should keep providing Taiwan with military assistance.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has described China as the “most dangerous foreign threat we face since the second world war” and said it’s clear that Beijing is preparing for war. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he would do everything he could to avoid using the U.S. military against China, “but if it was unavoidable, I would do what needs to be done.”

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy says he would aggressively defend Taiwan – but only until the U.S. has semiconductor independence, which he has pledged to do by 2028. At that point, he said, would not risk war for “some nationalistic dispute between China and Taiwan.”

– Francesca Chambers

GOP candidates Larry Elder and Perry Johnson announced on Tuesday that they planned to sue the Republican National Committee after not making the debate stage.

Elder alleged on X that the RNC notified him after he turned in his debate qualification package that one of the polls he cited would not count. Johnson’s campaign also sent an email claiming that the committee had rejected him because they weren’t accepting certain polls.

GOP candidate Francis Suarez said on X that his campaign also faced a similar issue on Monday night, though he added that he respects the rules set forth by the RNC.

“I am sorry that this debate will not include my perspectives from the largest growing voting block in our country - young, conservative Hispanics,” Suarez wrote.

– Sudiksha Kochi

Donald Trump himself may not be in Milwaukee, but Trump World has a definite presence at the debate site.

Surrogates like U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., are out and about, giving television interviews promoting their favorite absent candidate. Trump campaign aides are also milling about the area around the Fiserv Forum and speaking to reporters.

Everyday supporters have also flocked to downtown Milwaukee, despite temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, adorned in red or white Trump t-shirts and carrying signs. Part of their job, apparently: Wave the signs while standing behind television correspondents during live shots.

– David Jackson

Planned Parenthood launched this week its first ad in the 2024 presidential campaign, highlighting what five of the GOP candidates have said about abortion.

The first clip is of former Vice President Mike Pence, who has for decades tried to end government funding for Planned Parenthood and has taken the strongest anti-abortion stand in the 2024 field.

“Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortion,” Pence says in the clip.

The ad is running on social media and in Wisconsin.

– Maureen Groppe

The Ukraine war could prove to be fertile ground for the large group of presidential hopefuls to differentiate themselves.

Support for U.S. military assistance to Ukraine is flagging inside the GOP electorate with Kyiv’s counteroffensive against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army making slow progress. Still, any suggestion that Ukraine is at fault for Russia’s violation of its sovereignty is likely to drive away establishment Republican voters.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ description of the conflict as a “territorial dispute” helped fuel his decline, even though he later backtracked the comment and called Putin a “war criminal.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has also come under scrutiny for his views, including a proposal to allow Putin to keep parts of eastern Ukraine.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence are among the candidates who say that stopping Putin is vital to U.S. national security and helps to deter Chinese aggression toward Taiwan.

– Francesca Chambers

Former President Donald Trump’s indictments in both federal and state criminal cases have led some of his rivals to defend him, while others have sharply criticized him over the charges.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott have condemned the indictments on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have largely dodged questions about his criminal cases.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have been some of Trump's most vocal critics, particularly after he was indicted for allegedly trying to steal the 2020 election from President Joe Biden. After Trump's federal indictment over the 2020 election, former Vice President Mike Pence said anyone who puts themselves above the Constitution should not be president.

– Sudiksha Kochi

Biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has faced scrutiny in recent days over conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attack, something his rivals could use to their advantage during the debate.

In an interview on CNN earlier this week, Ramaswamy claimed he was misquoted in an article about his 9/11 comments, though that wasn’t the case according to a recording released later.

Ramaswamy, a Trump-loving candidate who embraces meritocracy and anti-wokeness, has previously drawn scrutiny over comments on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, Juneteenth and more.

– Rachel Looker and Sudiksha Kochi

Seven years ago, during the first GOP debate of the 2016 election, the Supreme Court was criticized by several candidates.

“It's time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being,” then candidate Mike Huckabee quipped.

What a difference a few years makes.

The nation’s highest court, which today is more conservative than it has been in decades, has already factored into the GOP primary. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump have swiped at each other over whether the bench is conservative enough. Last month, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy released a list of candidates he said he would nominate to the court, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.

– John Fritze

President Joe Biden is among the millions of Americans expected to tune in to tonight’s Republican primary debate.

“I’m going to try to see — get as much as I can, yes,” Biden, who is vacationing in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, told reporters when asked if he plans to watch the debate.

Asked about his expectations, Biden smiled and laughed. “I have none,” he said.

While Republican frontrunner Donald Trump skips out on the debate in Milwaukee, Biden’s reelection campaign is going on the offensive during the event.

The Biden campaign launched a $25 million television ad blitz to coincide with the first Republican debate and dispatched surrogates to Milwaukee as Democrats seek to paint the eight Republicans on the debate stage as part of an extreme “MAGA” Republican Party.

– Joey Garrison

Trump may not be on the stage in Milwaukee, but he is expected to weigh in on the proceedings.

A pre-taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is scheduled to be posted at 9 p.m., eastern, the same time as the debate.

Trump - who has also threatened to skip a second GOP debate scheduled for Sept. 27 in California - will likely comment on whatever happens in Milwaukee on Truth Social.

“The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had," Trump said Sunday on his social media platform, before adding: "I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”

- Rachel Looker and David Jackson

Former President Donald Trump is still leading the polls for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, according to an average calculated by RealClearPolitics.

He has garnered 55.4% in an average of polls, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trails behind him with 14.3%. Biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is in third with 7.2%, and former Vice President Mike Pence leads behind with 4% of support.

In line after those candidates are former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Trump aides are all over media set-ups outside the debate venue in Milwaukee, promoting those polls and proclaiming the race all but over. “You can’t stop the Trump Train,” senior adviser Jason Miller said.

– Sudiksha Kochi and David Jackson

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, 67, was rushed to a Milwaukee emergency room on Tuesday after he tore his Achilles tendon while playing basketball. He is currently using crutches.

However, he will still be on the debate stage, according to a post he shared on X, the platform previously known as Twitter.

Burgum, who did an early afternoon “walk through” said he wants to debate. A candidate with little name recognition, Burgum previously told USA TODAY his focus in the debate will be to introduce himself to Americans.

– Francesca Chambers,David Jackson and Sudiksha Kochi

Democratic Party officials are also zeroing in on the Milwaukee debate, trying to promote their messages in favor of President Joe Biden.

Speakers are doing national and local media hits, arguing that the Republicans are too extreme and too beholden to the missing debater, Donald Trump.

Democrats also have paid advertising on local and national media, as well as billboards on highways surrounding Milwaukee. The signs feature Biden answering various Republican proposals.

One section of the billboard says "tax cuts for yacht owners?" Biden's response: "Good luck with that, champ."

– David Jackson

The debate will take place at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is one of several swing states that could decide the presidency in 2024. Out of the last six presidential elections, four have been decided by less than one percentage point in Wisconsin.

The debate will be held ahead of the Republican National Convention, which is also set to take place in the city next year.

– Rachel Looker

The first Republican primary debate is scheduled for Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern.

The debate, hosted by Fox News, will air on Fox News Channel as well as Fox Business Network. It will also be streamed at and on the streaming service Fox National as well as on Rumble, an online streaming platform.

– Rachel Looker

The Republican National Committee formally announced that eight GOP candidates will take the debate stage Wednesday.

- Rachel Looker, David Jackson

The debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time. It's set to last two hours until 11 p.m. Eastern time.

– Rachel Looker

:Fact-checking the GOP debateFact-checking the GOP debate: