MILWAUKEE — The first Republican presidential debate provided a vivid reflection of the party’s lopsided nomination contest. Former president Donald Trump was in one place and everyone else in another.
In this case, it was Trump’s absence from and the others’ presence on the debate stage Wednesday night in Milwaukee that highlighted the chasm in support that exists between the front-runner and his would-be rivals scrambling to challenge for the nomination.
But instead of taking advantage of a stage without Trump, the eight candidates onstage quickly descended into disagreement, insults and name-calling that left one another as scathed as the former president.
It took nearly an hour for the Fox News debate to turn to Trump. But when the issue of his multiple indictments, including two for trying to subvert the 2020 election, came to the fore, it quickly became clear why he holds sway with so many in the party and why he is still such a divisive force in the country at large.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has been most relentless in attacking Trump during the campaign, said it was time “to stop normalizing” Trump’s conduct regardless of what people think of the fact that he is facing multiple indictments. His criticism of Trump was greeted by a chorus of boos from the audience and pushback from some of the other candidates.
Christie’s comments about Trump’s behavior were set against what the former president said in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired during the debate on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Trump, who has been indicted four times this year, refused to rule out further political violence and again defended those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
What he said was a reminder of why some Republicans fear that Trump, for all his popularity within the party, would be a weak nominee in a general election against President Biden. Nonetheless, most of the candidates onstage said they would still vote for Trump even if convicted in one of his upcoming trials and were loath to directly criticize him.
If Republican voters were looking for clarity about who might be best equipped to challenge Trump for the nomination, they were hard-pressed to get past the interruptions and insults they traded with one another. The debate went off track almost immediately as one candidate after another sought to grab the spotlight, seeing this as their best opportunity to make an impression.
Most aggressive throughout the evening was entrepreneur and political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, the youngest candidate on the stage. He certainly broke through, but to what end as he drew multiple rebukes from the others?
“We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” former vice president Mike Pence said.
Christie, who tore into Ramaswamy over his defense of Trump, called him an “amateur” who sounded like an AI-generated candidate.
Former South Carolina governor and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley blasted him as naive on foreign policy, particularly on whether the United States should continue to support Ukraine in its war with Russia.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who needed a memorable performance after many weeks of problems, seemed to struggle to break through. He repeated lines from his stump speech but lacked the consistency that his supporters were hoping to see. Instead of showing that he should be seen as the principal challenger to Trump, he looked and sounded more like one of the pack.
Among the most telling moments of the debate came over a question of whether Pence had done the right thing in refusing Trump’s demands to try to thwart the counting of the electoral vote on Jan. 6. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) said Pence had acted appropriately.
DeSantis, however, seemed tentative and it took the moderators to force him to answer the question direction. “I’ve got no beef with him,” he said while turning to a more comfortable issue for conservatives — the role of the Justice Department and what he called the weaponization of the agency.
Haley praised Pence for his actions and called Trump the “most disliked” politician in the country. “We can’t win a general election that way,” she said.
As expected, Christie stood out as a skilled and aggressive debater, but he still must overcome the fact that a majority of Republicans view him unfavorably. Meanwhile, Haley showed talents with her crisp delivery. The others in the debate, Scott, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum had little impact, though Hutchinson was as forthright as Christie on saying Trump was unfit to be president again.
Wednesday’s debate had all the trappings of similar events in past campaign cycles. The candidates were primed and eager. The arena was filled with noisy partisans. The media filing center was packed with reporters. There was plenty of pre-debate speculation and post-debate analysis.
It seemed almost normal, but nothing about this cycle is normal, starting with the fact that the former president has been charged in federal and state courts with attempting to overturn the 2020 election and continues to lie by saying the election was rife with widespread fraud.
As Republican voters decide whether Trump should lead the party into a general election, it is possible that juries will decide his innocence or guilt in cases involving the 2020 election, as well as his mishandling of classified documents. But Trump’s rivals, judging from Wednesday’s debate, remain tentative in taking on that issue.
There was also something surreal about the first Republican debate beyond Trump’s decision not to participate. That was the role of Fox News as the debate partner with the Republican National Committee.
Moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum sought to make Trump and his past words and deeds a part of the discussion. Unsaid was that the conservative cable network paid $787 million to settle a lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems for perpetuating lies about the results of the 2020 election. In so many ways, Trump’s lies about 2020 continue to infect the party and the process.
Rarely is a first debate of the season decisive for any candidate. But this nomination contest could be different. The threshold for participation will be higher in future debates, and those languishing in the polls will face fundraising difficulties as pressure grows to clear the field.
National polls have told the story of the nomination contest. The former president enjoys the support of a majority of Republicans as their pick to lead the party against Biden in 2024. The Washington Post’s average of polls taken in August puts his support among Republicans at 58 percent. That represents a seven-percentage point increase over polls in July, further evidence that the multiple indictments of the former president have strengthened him within the party.
Those national polls put DeSantis in second at 16 percent. Unlike Trump, he has moved in the opposite direction after several difficult months in which he has struggled as a candidate, repeatedly shaken up his campaign team and weathered a barrage of attacks from the Trump team. In June, his average in national polls was 23 percent.
But another set of polls provides Trump’s rivals with some reason to believe the nomination is not already locked up. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that will begin the GOP contest, Trump commands support from less than a majority of Republicans.
What Wednesday’s debate was about, in part, was the goal of Trump’s rivals to find a way to consolidate as much of that non-Trump support as possible to become the principal challenger once the primaries and caucuses begin. Nobody on the stage seemed to have done that.