Republican debate: Candidates square off as Trump refuses to take part

Front-runner Donald Trump's absence gives his eight rivals an opportunity to boost their low poll ratings

Most of Donald Trump's rivals would still support him if he was convicted of a crime

Most of Donald Trump's rivals would still support him if he was convicted of a crime
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Eight Republican presidential candidates took to the stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday night for the first debate of the 2024 race. But the debate was missing the clear front-runner, former president Donald Trump.

Mr Trump, who holds a commanding lead over his rivals, elected to skip the debate, instead taking part in an interview with former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson on X, the social media website formally known as Twitter.

His interview was streamed at the same time as the Republican debate.

With the former president forgoing Wednesday night's debate, the remaining candidates who qualified took the opportunity to try to gain a greater national presence, often speaking over each other while outlining their respective platforms.

Among the topics discussed ranged from Russia's war on Ukraine, climate change, crime, the US economy to governance.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, once seen as the heir apparent to Mr Trump, has dropped off precipitously in the polls since the midterm elections last year. As governor, Mr DeSantis has gone after what he calls “woke indoctrination”, and has campaigned against allowing lessons on race and sexual orientation in the classroom.

Mr DeSantis tried to project himself as presidential and took aim at President Joe Biden's handling of the economy.

“I showed it could be done in the state of Florida,” Mr DeSantis said in his opening remarks. “I pledge to you as your president, we will get the job done. And I will not let you down.”

Other household names were former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. A prolific debater, in 2016, Mr Christie was known for his unflinching attacks on his Republican rivals.

Ms Haley took on the entire Republican Party in her rebuke of the country's economy.

“The truth is that Biden didn't do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us to when they passed that $2.2 trillion Covid stimulus bill,” she said.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been rising in recent polls, and Senator Tim Scott also looked to seize prime-time viewers' attention.

Mr Ramaswamy cast himself as a non-politician, surrounded by career legislators.

“If you have a broken car, you don't turn over the keys to the people who broke it again,” he said to applause from the crowd of about 4,000 people.

“You hand it over to a new generation to actually fix the problem. That's why I'm in this race and we're just getting warmed up.”

Former vice president, state governor and representative Mike Pence, who served under Mr Trump, responded to Mr Ramaswamy, saying: “Joe Biden has weakened this country at home and abroad. Now is not the time for on the job training. We don't need to bring in a rookie. We don't need to bring in people without experience.”

Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum – who are both polling below 1 per cent – also appeared.

A handful of other candidates failed to meet the requirements to participate.

The 'elephant not in the room'

For nearly an hour, the eight candidates on stage barely uttered Mr Trump's name, dancing around the “elephant not in the room”.

When asked by the moderators whether they would support Mr Trump if he were convicted but still nominated as the choice to lead the Republican ticket, all but Mr Christie and Mr Hutchinson raised their hands.

The power and control that Mr Trump still holds over the party was on full display when Mr Christie was loudly booed for criticising the former president.

“Someone's got to stop normalising this conduct,” Mr Christie said. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States.”

But not everybody seemed to agree.

Mr Ramaswamy vociferously defended Mr Trump.

“Let's just speak the truth, OK? President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century,” he said.

Squaring off on foreign policy

Mr Ramaswamy and Mr DeSantis took a controversial track when they both said they would cut military aid to Ukraine.

The entrepreneur, who was heavily criticised by his competitors over his lack of foreign policy experience, said: “The reality is, today, Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America.”

The Florida governor, meanwhile, said he would ask Europe to do more.

“I'm not going to send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to our southern border,” Mr DeSantis said.

Ms Haley hit back at the candidates for their lack of support for Ukraine.

“We have to know that Ukraine is the first line of defence for us,” she said. She also accused Mr Ramaswamy of wanting to “stop funding of Israel”.

The former South Carolina governor also warned of the danger posed by Russia and its leader President Vladimir Putin.

Why is the debate important?

With Mr Trump not in attendance, Wednesday night's debate gave the eight candidates an opportunity to make their first pitch to US voters and gain ground on the former president.

Mr Ramaswamy's surging poll numbers made him the subject of numerous attacks by both Mr Pence and Ms Haley. The youngest person in the field fired back and tried to show voters that he was the fresh air that Republicans and America needed.

In a debate where all eight candidates desperately needed to gain ground on Mr Trump, it's unclear if anybody really distinguished themselves enough to catch up to the former president.

The next debate is scheduled for September 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

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Updated: August 24, 2023, 6:44 PM