What We’re Watching for in the First GOP Primary Debate

August 22, 2023

The first Republican primary debate of the 2024 cycle will take place tomorrow in Milwaukee—without frontrunner Donald Trump.

The rest of the qualifying candidates will try to make the case that they are best suited to dethrone Trump. They will need to do so by winning over soft Trump supporters, independents, and Republican donors, whose funds are essential right now to keep fledgling campaigns alive.

We spoke to several of the people advising the candidates on both the campaign and super PAC sides, and these are the things we’ll be watching for.


With so many candidates on the stage—between 7 and 10, as of this writing—the debate will be a battle for attention, with all of the candidates looking to break through and break out. The format favors those who can throw sharp elbows, and there are a host of issues on which the candidates disagree, from foreign policy, particularly aid to Ukraine, to abortion and, perhaps most importantly, Trump’s conduct and the legal challenges it has brought about.

Can DeSantis turn things around? 

Florida governor Ron DeSantis is not in an enviable position heading into the debate. He has the most to lose from this contest and will be a target for others on the stage. DeSantis excelled in Tallahassee press conferences that allowed him to go head-to-head with reporters, but debates have not traditionally been a strong suit. He has been working hard in mock debates to get in shape for this one.

Before he launched his campaign in May, DeSantis was pitching himself as a competent version of Trump, a MAGA politician focused on policy who could get things done. His campaign thus far has instead exposed some of his own incompetence, whether it’s articulating a compelling message or managing his own team. He needs to arrest the downward spiral, and he’ll have an opportunity to do so on Wednesday. A lackluster performance, on the other hand, will probably accelerate his decline.


Will any candidate save Chris Christie and Mike Pence attack Trump head on? To date, most have either defended the former president in the face of the state and federal indictments he faces, like boy entrepreneur-cum-anti-woke-activist Vivek Ramaswamy, or tried to sidestep the question and change the subject.

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley has argued that it’s time to move on from Trump or "we will have a general election that’s doing nothing but dealing with lawsuits." DeSantis seemed to squirm in his seat when Megyn Kelly asked him to elaborate on what more Trump could have done to stop his supporters from storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021: "You can identify flawed conduct, you can criticize his conduct, but you have to find a statute that was violated and I think one of the dangers of what Garland's doing in this is they may be taking statutes from, like, Reconstruction Era that was about making sure freed slaves had civil rights and they may apply that?"

Will anybody come out of the gates and take a real swing?

Vivek Ramaswamy

The 38-year-old is probably the best communicator in the Republican field, which—along with the fact that he can self-fund his campaign—helps to explain how he’s made himself a (Republican) household name and gained traction in the polls. But he has no policy record and one does get the feeling he gets out over his skis, particularly when talking about foreign policy. On aid to Israel alone, his position has shifted several times. The debate will offer his rivals an opportunity to expose him—or show they are not capable of blunting his momentum.

Chris Christie

Like Babe Ruth coming up to the plate, the former New Jersey governor has called his shot. What happens if he can’t deliver what he’s promised? And if he does hit it out of the ballpark by destroying one of his opponents, the people are going to want to see more.