The Battle for Wisconsin Is Underway

Fiserv Forum



By Pat Kreitlow

August 17, 2023

Republican presidential candidates are preparing for a debate in Milwaukee just days after President Biden made his case for another term during a visit to the city. What should we be looking for from the GOP hopefuls?

Wisconsin will again become the center of the American political universe, when Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum hosts the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2024 campaign next Wednesday. It’s a position we should probably get used to. Wisconsin’s presidential elections have had razor-thin margins for almost as long as we can remember, so voters would do well to hear from the candidates  hoping to earn their party’s nomination to run  against President Joe Biden—who himself was just in Milwaukee, acknowledging our status as king of the swing states. 

“Trump Looms Large,” is the morning-after headline being predicted by Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki.

“Whether or not Mr. Trump is on that debate stage, he is what this primary election on the Republican side is all about,” Zepecki said Thursday on UpNorthNews Radio. “The questions are going to be stuff like, ‘if Donald Trump is convicted of any of the 78 federal charges he faces, will you use the power of the presidency to pardon him?’ So the story’s going to be about Trump.” 

Before the moderators ask their first questions, let’s address a few about the event itself.

Will former President Donald Trump show up on Wednesday night? His calendar this week already has one big event—appearing at a jail in Atlanta to be arraigned on felony charges of trying to steal the last presidential election. Trump may want to use the Milwaukee stage to reassert his position as the current runaway favorite for the nomination. Or he may think it’s all beneath him, leaving the others to make the case that they’re the next best thing, if Trump falters or gets too distracted by the four criminal trials he’s now facing.

Who will be there? The stage will feature familiar names: former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. There will also be relative unknowns: Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Doug Burgum. 

Other candidates in the field are on the verge of excluded because they failed to meet the debate’s qualifying threshold for polling or for fundraising—or for refusing to sign a pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee. 

Will there be tough questions? That’s a fair question, given that the debate is being put on by Fox News Channel. We hope the questions will lead to substantive answers about what these people would actually do as president and what they’d try to accomplish—not the same old negative attacks and fear tactics.

What does this debate mean to a Wisconsin audience? For firmly-Republican voters who aren’t positive they’d vote for Trump, this debate is a big deal. They may have a favorite who excels or falls short. And they’ll have to ask themselves in all seriousness, can their preferred candidate be conservative enough to win the primary, but moderate enough to win the general election?  

And finally, what are these folks really running for? Does each candidate really see themselves as a viable alternative to both Trump and Biden? Or are some of them running to be Trump’s running mate and enjoying some national attention? We’re hoping this very first debate helps separate the field into contenders and pretenders.

We know that running for president is still tough stuff. Remember how former Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign only lasted 72 days? One of the most recent candidates to enter the field, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, has already lasted 75 days–and we had to double-check that we spelled his name right! 

So let’s give credit to anyone who’s qualified to make the trip to Milwaukee, but now the time has come to insist on full answers, detailed positions, and a serious attitude about defending democracy from the kinds of attacks that threaten to tear our country apart—the attacks launched and still defended by the candidate who will loom largest on that stage, whether he’s there or not.

Listen to Pat Kreitlow on UpNorthNews Radio, weekdays 6-8am, on stations across Wisconsin on the Civic Media radio network. You can also watch the live video feed on our Facebook page or subscribe to the show as a podcast on Apple and Spotify.

LISTEN: Pat asks Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki to guess what the morning-after headline will be after the debate


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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