Republican presidential hopefuls not named Donald Trump quarreled among themselves Wednesday at the first GOP primary debate in Milwaukee.
Trump, the indicted former president and commanding frontrunner to win the party's nomination in 2024, was physically absent but loomed large over the field of second-tier candidates as they worked to persuade viewers that a different outcome was even possible.
Asked to address what Fox News moderator Bret Baier described as "the elephant not in the room," most of the candidates raised their hands when asked if they would still vote for Trump if he is ultimately convicted of the numerous crimes for which he has been indicted.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), the highest-polling candidate on stage, held his own and emerged largely unscathed as most of his rivals aimed their ire at Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur who has questioned the official narrative surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"This country is in decline," DeSantis said in his opening remarks. "We need to send President Biden back to his basement and reverse this decline." He went on to tout his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, his efforts to oust George Soros-funded prosecutors for being soft on crime, and his promise to wage war on Mexican drug cartels.
Ramaswamy, a self-made multimillionaire whose poll numbers have risen steadily in recent weeks, cast himself as an "outsider" who can bring real change to Washington.
"When you have a broken car, you don’t turn over the keys to the people who broke it," Ramaswamy said. "You give the keys to a new generation." He went on to promote himself as "the only non-neocon on stage" and "the only person on this stage who isn't bought and paid for" by super PAC money, a line that elicited boos from the debate audience.
His rivals were not amused and seemed genuinely annoyed by the affect of the first millennial candidate to run in a Republican primary. Mike Pence, the former vice president, lashed out at the young whippersnapper in an effort to cast himself as the most experienced candidate on stage. "Now is not the time for on-the-job training," he said. "We don't need to bring in a rookie."
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, struck the same note when she pushed back on Ramaswamy's assertion that the only war he would wage as president is against the administrative state. "You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows," she snapped.
Chris Christie, the rotund former governor of New Jersey, also took aim at Ramaswamy, dismissing him as an "amateur." Ramaswamy, he said, is just another "skinny guy with an odd last name," a reference to former president Barack Obama.
The former governor did not shy away from criticizing Trump, urging Republicans to "stop normalizing" conduct that is "beneath the office of the presidency." The audience expressed displeasure at the thought, but Christie was unfazed. "Booing is allowed, but it doesn't change the truth," he said. Haley, for her part, urged GOP voters "to face the fact" that the former president is "the most disliked politician in the country" and argued Republicans "can't win an election" with him on the ballot.
Sen. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) turned in a largely forgettable performance, taking a relatively hard line on abortion while struggling to assert himself as the loudest and most aggrieved candidate on stage. Boring lines such as, "We need Lady Justice to wear a blindfold," fell flat amid the bickering.
Trump, meanwhile, hit the airwaves minutes before the debate got underway and it is hard to imagine he regretted skipping the event. In a prerecorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, he laid out his thought process: "I'm saying, '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?"
The former president insisted once again that the 2020 election was "rigged" and accused Democrats of conspiring to steal the election again in 2024. "These people are sick," he said.
Trump holds a daunting 41 percentage point lead over the rest of the field nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. He leads by more than 25 percentage points in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Gov. Doug Burgum (R., N.D.), who sported a walking boot after suffering a torn Achilles during a pickup basketball game on Tuesday, participated in the debate and vowed to bring "small-town values" to Washington. Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, was also there.