But they were not primed for a brawl. The gathering was not marked by a desire for confrontation, but for policy-centered discussions and a potential shift away from the lingering influence of former President Donald J. Trump.
Trump did not bother to attend, citing his commanding lead as the reason for non-participation.
Most candidates on the debate stage swore allegiance to Trump, regardless of his legal entanglements, criminal charges and unorthodox behavior. Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy succinctly stated, "President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It's a fact."
A group of lifelong California Republicans gathered at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum to watch their party's presidential primary debate.
Rocky Brister, 62, leaned against a table scattered with empty wine glasses as the debate unfolded on screen in front of him. "They were almost all impressive," he said, his voice resonating with a sense of satisfaction.
Brister was particularly struck by Ramaswamy, the assertive biotech entrepreneur who had a strong presence on the Milwaukee stage. Rocky's wife, Loretta Brister, 61, echoed the sentiment and suggested a Trump-Ramaswamy ticket. (Related: Vivek Ramaswamy is not your typical GOP presidential candidate.)
But in many ways, they were yearning for the Republican Party of yesteryears.
They wanted to hear discussions about fiscal conservatism, foreign policy and immigration, but not just from a retrospective standpoint. They hoped for a candidate who could bridge the gap between the party's storied legacy and its evolving future.
Chuck Patton, 62, a retired sheriff's deputy, spoke of his hopes.
"I want to hear a vision, what they're going to do to stop the country from going off the rails," he said.
The venue of their viewing party, nestled in Orange County, provided an interesting backdrop to this Republican introspection. The library is a tribute to Nixon, a Republican president who left office amid a scandal. Now, the party is showcasing a group of contenders aiming to unseat Trump, an ex-president who faced impeachment twice and multiple criminal charges.
As the debate played out, the observers remained divided yet hopeful.
Patton left with an affirmed belief that many of the candidates managed to step out of Trump's long shadow. The room was abuzz with energy, particularly for figures like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Ramaswamy.
Marla Robinson, a 62-year-old lawyer, was moved by former Gov. Nikki Haley's performance, tearing up as she saw a woman boldly challenge a stage full of men.
The room erupted in cheers when Ramaswamy launched a strong critique against former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a staunch Trump critic.
As the night drew to a close, it was clear that these Republicans were seeking a leader who could unite the party while guiding it away from the turbulence of Trump's persona and legal woes. The Nixon library provided both a historical backdrop and a space for contemplation, as the attendees grappled with the evolving political landscape and their role in shaping the future of the GOP.
The steadfast loyalty to Trump acted as a stark reminder of his continued sway within the GOP and the reticence of numerous contenders to directly challenge his polarizing legacy. The challenge was evident: Amidst a crowded field, no single candidate emerged as a compelling counterforce to Trump's dominance.
Watch this video about the GOP presidential primary debate.
This video is from the Pool Pharmacy channel on Brighteon.com.