Who’s who in the first Republican presidential debate

In addition to Trump, eight candidates have met the donor and polling qualifications set by the party to decide who can take part in the event

Participants in the first debate of the Republican presidential primaries. From left to right, top, Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy. Below, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson.AP
Miguel Jiménez

Despite the dominance of Donald Trump, the Republican primaries for the 2024 presidential election are a very crowded field. More than a dozen candidates are in the race for the White House, but most do not have any chance of winning. Of these candidates, eight have met the donor and polling qualifications to participate in the first Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. While Trump has backed down from the debate, these eight presidential hopefuls will all take part in the event, which will be broadcast on Fox News.

The nearly two-hour-long debate will take place in Milwaukee in the Fiserv Forum, the home stadium of Giannis Antetokoumpo’s basketball team the Milwaukee Bucks. Here is a look at the eight candidates who will be on stage.

Ron DeSantis, last week at a campaign event in Newport (New Hampshire).
Ron DeSantis, last week at a campaign event in Newport (New Hampshire).BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Ron DeSantis

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is Trump’s main rival in the primaries, but he is lagging far behind the former president. The 44-year-old politician, who is married and the father of three children, seemed like the great hope of the Republican Party after he was overwhelmingly re-elected as governor in November 2020. But he waited too long to announce his White House run, his campaign got off to a bad start, and since then, it has only been getting worse. His first act was a botched Twitter forum with the eccentric Elon Musk that was completely marred by technical problems. The Trump campaign went on the attack, releasing a barrage of ads critical of DeSantis. The goal was to prevent the governor from gaining ground, and with help from DeSantis’ own missteps, it has succeeded.

DeSantis has failed to find a consistent tone for his campaign. He is torn between defending Trump over his indictments and criticizing him. Meanwhile, the former president has been making fun of him for not only changing his rhetoric, but also for changing the way he pronounces his surname. The governor’s latest blunder was not that he criticized Trump, but rather Trump’s supporters, suggesting that they are a herd blindly following their leader. The trouble is DeSantis needs many of their votes if he wants to win the Republican presidential nomination.

DeSantis’ strategy has been to argue that Trump has no chance of winning against Joe Biden, as he is widely opposed by moderate and independent voters. The governor says that Trump is a loser, as reflected in his defeat in the 2020 presidential elections and the poor result of his candidates in the 2022 midterms. By contrast, DeSantis points to his major victory in Florida, a state that was previously evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. However, DeSantis himself is very conservative and is regarded with suspicion by moderate voters. What’s more, his campaign errors have taken a toll. The distance between him and Trump has widened, with the governor even at risk of falling to third place. According to the average of large polls calculated by FiveThirtyEight, DeSantis is polling at 15.2%, compared to 52.5% for Trump.

But as if he wasn’t already starting off at a disadvantage, The New York Times recently published his campaign strategy documents, including a memo with recommendations for the debate: “1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s [Governor Ron DeSantis] positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.” Will he stick to the script?

Mike Pence, last week, at a political conference in Atlanta (Georgia).
Mike Pence, last week, at a political conference in Atlanta (Georgia).CHENEY ORR (REUTERS)

Mike Pence

Mike Pence, 64, was Trump’s loyal vice president throughout his administration. That was until Trump asked him to break the law and subvert election results to prevent Joe Biden’s presidential victory from being certified by Congress. At that decisive moment, Pence decided to be loyal to the Constitution. And Trump supporters have not forgiven him.

Pence says his differences with Trump go far beyond what happened the day of the assault on the Capitol. He is a traditional conservative, evangelical and anti-abortion. His firm convictions contrast with the moral relativism of the former president.

Pence is both Trump’s rival and a witness in the election subversion case against him. He fought an order to testify, but in the end, the former vice president had no choice. Prosecutors also had access to the contemporaneous notes that Pence kept about the pressure he was under from Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Pence struggled to even qualify for the debate, given the low number of his donors. He is currently polling at around 5%.

Vivek Ramaswamy, in a file image.
Vivek Ramaswamy, in a file image.EDUARDO MUNOZ (REUTERS)

Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy is the main surprise of the Republican primaries. The 38-year-old, who is the son of Indian immigrants, presents himself as a kind of millennial Trump, a billionaire businessman, successful investor in biotechnology and free market advocate. He is also known for his fight against so-called woke ideology, speaking out against progressive ideas on climate change, diversity and equality. He is against corporations that speak out on social issues. And with his fast tongue, money and strident defense of Trump, he has been gaining ground in the polls. He’s polling at 9.2%, according to the FiveThirtyEight average, meaning he’s clearly ahead of Pence and just behind DeSantis. Ramaswamy’s not one to bite his tongue, so he is expected to be one of the most entertaining candidates in the debate.

Nikki Haley, this month, at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa.
Nikki Haley, this month, at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa.SCOTT MORGAN (REUTERS)

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador and the former South Carolina governor, is among those who strongly believe the GOP should turn the page on Trumpism, but she is also very cautious in her criticism of the former president. She was one of the first to make a move to separate herself from the pack. At the beginning of her campaign, she made headlines by calling for cognitive tests for presidential candidates over 75 (read Biden and Trump). In response, CNN’s star morning presenter, Don Lemon, said that at 51, she was no longer in her prime. Between the backlash caused by the remark and his low ratings, Lemon was fired from the network.

Haley, the only woman among the eight candidates, has not been able to get her campaign off the ground. She is polling at 3.5%, according to the average of the polls. Like Ramaswamy, she is the daughter of Indian immigrants. Her original name is Nimarata Nikki Randhawa, but she goes by her middle name and the surname of her husband: the soldier Michael Haley.

Chris Christie, last week at a political conference in Atlanta (Georgia).
Chris Christie, last week at a political conference in Atlanta (Georgia).CHENEY ORR (REUTERS)

Chris Christie

In the 2016 campaign, Chris Christie, a 60-year-old former New Jersey governor, was helping Trump prepare for the debates, after dropping out of the race. Now, he is set to be the most outspoken critic of Trump in the Fox debate. He has called Trump a “coward” for not attending the debate, but more importantly, he openly questions the former president.

Christie broke with Trump after he refused to accept defeat in the 2020 elections. Christie believes that the former president has kidnapped the Republican Party with his megalomania and personal interests. “I’m running because he’s let us down,” Christie said recently at a political rally for an influential evangelical group. “He has let us down because he’s unwilling to take responsibility for any of the mistakes that were made and any of the faults that he has and any of the things he’s done, and that is not leadership everybody. That is a failure of leadership,” he added. It’s a position that is not very popular among Republicans. He was booed at that event, and is currently only polling at 3.5%.

Tim Scott, this month campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa.
Tim Scott, this month campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa.SCOTT MORGAN (REUTERS)

Tim Scott

Tim Scott is the only Black senator in the Republican Party. The 57-year-old is known for his oratory skills. He is a deeply religious and conservative candidate, who often quotes the Bible in campaign rallies and has spoken out in favor of a federal law that bans abortions after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The senator from South Carolina is the grandson of a worker in the cotton fields of the Deep South. He sells his personal story of success after overcoming adversity — he was raised by a divorced mother who worked long hours as a nursing assistant to support him and his brother — as supposed proof that racism does not exist in the United States, arguing that anyone who works hard can prosper. Polling averages put him at 3.4%.

Asa Hutchinson, at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.
Asa Hutchinson, at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.SCOTT MORGAN (REUTERS)

Asa Hutchinson

Along with Christie, Hutchinson is set to be the loudest critic of Trump in the debate. The 72-year-old was the last to qualify for the debate, polling at just 0.7%. The former governor of Arkansas believes that nominating Trump would be a big mistake that would end up helping the Democrats get Biden re-elected.

“Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again [...] Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison,” he said at a campaign rally in Iowa, where he was met with a loud chorus of boos.

Doug Burgum, this month campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa.
Doug Burgum, this month campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

Doug Burgum

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum pulled out his checkbook to make sure he had enough donors to qualify for the debate. He offered 50,000 $20 gift cards to anyone who donated a dollar and thus comfortably exceed the 40,000 donor threshold required to take part.

Burgum, a 67-year-old billionaire, swept the election for governor of North Dakota, which is a strongly Republican state. But outside North Dakota, Burgum is largely unknown. His presence in the campaign is marginal. Polling averages put him at just 0.7%.

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