(NEXSTAR) – Eight presidential candidates took the stage Wednesday night at the Republican debate and Donald J. Trump wasn’t one of them – but the former president was a topic of conversation.
The debate took place in Milwaukee from 9 to 11 p.m. EST, with live broadcast coverage on Fox News Channel. Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderated the debate.
The candidates included North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
11:06 p.m. ET: DeSantis takes back seat
After recent campaign stumbles, Ron DeSantis was expected to have to defend himself and project likeability on the debate stage — but he had done relatively little of either as the two-hour broadcast ended.
The Florida governor instead seemed to take a back seat to more vocal candidates, speaking significantly less than biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, his closest GOP competitor besides former President Donald Trump in recent polls.
Ramaswamy garnered both massive applause and barbs from competitors on stage on topics from foreign policy to climate change.
In the second half of the night, DeSantis was given the first chance to answer a question about education, one of the topics he campaigns on most passionately. He responded with ease, citing Florida legislation to remove mentions of gender identity so-called critical race theory in the classroom.
But Ramaswamy was quick on his tail. The novice candidate pleased the crowd with calls to “shut down the head of the snake, the Department of Education,” end teachers unions, and require civics tests to graduate high school.
10:50 p.m. ET: Christie asked about UFOs at Republican debate
There was a UFO question posed near the end of the GOP debate. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked if he would “level” with the American people about what was known about what was “out there.”
Christie took mock offense, saying he’d been asked that because he was from New Jersey and that his home state is “different but not that different.”
He didn’t otherwise take the bait, saying those on stage had better things to talk about.
10:37 p.m. ET: Ramaswamy takes literal center stage at debate
At the center of the stage, and at the center of the hottest exchanges in the first part of the debate, was a 38-year-old novice candidate and technology entrepreneur named Vivek Ramaswamy.
Though he’s well behind Trump, Ramaswamy has crept up in recent polls, leading to his position next to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at center stage. And he quickly showed why when he showcased his ready-for-video, on-message approach, talking about how his poor parents moved to the U.S. and he had the ability to found billion-dollar companies.
Then Ramaswamy tried to show he wasn’t a regular politician and started to throw elbows. At one point he declared, “I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for.” He slammed his rivals as “super PAC puppets” who were using “readymade, pre-prepared slogans” to attack him.
Ramaswamy was also the only candidate to oppose more funding to Ukraine.
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv to their Pope Zelenskyy without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago or Kensington,” Ramaswamy said. “I think we have to put the interests of Americans first, secure our own border instead of somebody else’s.”
This prompted a rebuke from Pence: “Anybody that thinks that we can’t solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth.”
10:10 p.m. ET: All but two candidates say they would support Trump nominee
When the moderators asked candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the Republican nominee, even as he faces multiple criminal indictments, all but two answered yes.
As those on stage raised their hands one by one, Christie appeared to lift his hand slightly then shake it. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson kept his hand down.
The candidates on stage were required to sign a pledge vowing to support the eventual nominee before joining Wednesday’s debate.
9:48 p.m. ET: Candidates debate abortion
As the candidates asserted their pro-life stances, they debated what sort of federal restrictions should exist on abortion. DeSantis stopped short of committing to a six-week abortion ban, The Hill reports, while Haley said any sort of federal ban wouldn’t happen given the makeup of Congress.
Pence is the only major candidate who has said he supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant.
9:40 p.m. ET: DeSantis borrows Trump’s famous line
It was Donald Trump’s famous line on “The Apprentice,” but at the debate, “You’re fired!” was taken over by one of his top GOP challengers.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that “a major reason” for America’s current struggles is “because how this federal government handled COVID-19 by locking down this economy.”
DeSantis, who has talked often on the campaign trail about how he “kept Florida open” during the pandemic, said at the debate that, “As your president, I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down.”
Of Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert during the pandemic, DeSantis said, “You don’t take somebody like Fauci and coddle him. You bring Fauci and you sit him down and you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired.’”
9:35 p.m. ET: Ramaswamy is a top early target
Vivek Ramaswamy emerged as a popular target early in the debate, drawing cheers from the audience when he introduced himself.
“Let me just address a question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight,” the biotech entrepreneur said. “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?”
Former Vice President Mike Pence called him a “rookie,” saying people should not elect people without experience.
Christie accused Ramaswamy of trying to imitate Barack Obama and said the country had already tried that.
9 p.m. ET: Debate officially begins, some candidates booed
The debate officially kicked off after the candidates pledged allegiance to the flag and Natalie Grant sang the national anthem.
Former President Donald Trump isn’t on the debate stage, but the audience seems firmly in his corner.
The crowd booed former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson as they were introduced at Wednesday night’s debate on Fox News. The two are among the most prominent anti-Trump candidates in the GOP field.
Trump skipped the event for an interview with Tucker Carlson instead. He told Carlson: “Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.