Although he skipped the first Republican debate in favour of an interview with former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, former president Donald Trump's presence loomed large over the stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
And the eight candidates who sparred on the debate stage remain far behind the Republican front-runner in the polls. Mr Trump holds a 37-point lead over his closest competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The only runner who gained some ground on the former president was entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who found himself at the centre of attacks on Wednesday night. The 38-year-old candidate gained 0.8 per cent on the former president.
Other competitors – former vice president Mike Pence, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and US Senator Tim Scott – remain a considerable distance from Mr Trump.
Which candidate spoke the most?
Mr Pence was given the most speaking time during Wednesday night's debate, according to a tracker from The New York Times. He also gave a defence of his role in certifying the 2020 election in a topic on whether he did the “right thing” on January 6, 2021.
“The American people deserve to know that the president [Mr Trump] asked me in his request that I reject or return votes. He asked me to put him over the constitution and I chose the constitution,” Mr Pence said.
Meanwhile, Mr Ramaswamy was at the centre of many feisty exchanges, trading barbs with Mr Pence, Mr Christie and Ms Haley.
Mr Ramaswamy, who gained prominence for his harsh critiques of liberal culture, has made a surprising jump in the polls, placed just behind Mr DeSantis in third and he was at the forefront of much of Wednesday's debate.
He ended the night with the second-most speaking time and said it was time for a new generation of leadership in the US.
Mr Pence responded: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don't need to bring in a rookie.”
Mr Ramaswamy's controversial foreign policy – he has said he would cut funding to Ukraine – strays from mainstream Republican thought.
He was trounced by both Mr Pence and Ms Haley, who said the young candidate was choosing a “murderer over a pro-American country.
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Ms Haley said to Mr Ramaswamy.
Meanwhile, Mr Christie likened the entrepreneurial upstart to ChatGPT. But through it all Mr Ramaswamy smiled and kept fighting back, trying to paint himself as the heir apparent to Mr Trump, who he said “was the best president of the 21st century”.
Mr DeSantis stood centre-stage but largely faded into the background on Wednesday night with the fourth-most airtime. His campaign team tried to spin the lack of speaking engagement as the Florida governor staying above the fray.
Ms Haley, whose campaign has struggled to gain traction, was quick to take on her rivals and unafraid to challenge the Republican party, which she said was partially responsible for the country's economic struggles.
"It was nice to have a debate with a majority of the candidates who are actually interested in governing and the future of America and possibly a future post-Trump," said Melissa Brown, a member of Republican Women for Progress, a grassroots policy organisation that aims to get conservative women into office.
Ms Brown believed Ms Haley outperformed her opponents, although she felt Mr DeSantis did an adequate job staying on message and speaking to his record as governor of Florida.
"I thought Nikki Haley had a good performance and I thought Ron DeSantis did well," Ms Brown told The National.
"I think Chris Christie held nothing back. Doug Burgum also stood out to me and I was not a fan of Ramaswamy's performance."
What were the topics discussed?
The candidates sparred over the economy, abortion, foreign policy, education and of course former President Trump.
According to The New York Times tracker, they spent the most time discussing abortion, followed by Mr Trump, then their credentials.
They wavered over whether as president they would impose a federal ban on abortion, with Mr Pence saying he would and Ms Haley, the only woman onstage, arguing that a national ban would be unlikely to pass because it would require 60 Senate votes.
When asked by the moderators if they would still support Mr Trump if he were convicted of the many charges he faces and yet still took the Republican nomination, all but two raised their hands. The loan dissenters were Mr Christie, who has long criticised the former president, and Asa Hutchinson.