It’s difficult to dominate a man who isn’t there, and the eight Republican candidates onstage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night didn’t really try. Not until an hour into the first debate of the 2024 primary season did the moderators force the issue of “the elephant not in the room”—former President Trump, the absent frontrunner—to what seemed to be the candidates’ and audience’s collective chagrin.
They pleaded to change the subject: “I've answered this before," complained Florida Gov. Ron Desantis. They made nonsensical segues: “China loves it when we talk about the past,” argued North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. They tried to pivot: “The first thing I’ll do as President is fire Merrick Garland,” vowed Sen. Tim Scott. Even former Vice President Mike Pence, who at one point stirringly defended his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, insisted the election was “not about looking back at January 2021.”
To their credit, when pressed, the candidates largely agreed that Pence had done the right thing on Jan. 6. But they, and much of the audience, seemed to want to talk about anything else. “Let’s just get through this section!” pleaded moderator Brett Baier. (For Trump's part, as the debate was beginning, the ousted former Fox host Tucker Carlson posted online an interview with the former President that he’d taken time out of his busy schedule meeting with autocrats to pretape last week.)
That’s not to say that they all agreed on the subject: Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy thrust his hand in the air like an eager student when the candidates were asked if they’d support another Trump nomination even if he's convicted of a crime, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, waggling a finger, argued the party needed to move on and “dispense with the person who said we have to suspend the Constitution.” But the segment, the liveliest of the night, was telling of how the other candidates viewed the frontrunner’s looming specter: as an unpleasant obligation to be reluctantly endured.
The debate marked the unofficial kickoff of a campaign season that has been defined by the other candidates’ collective inability to discredit Trump in the eyes of GOP voters, who largely view the quadruply indicted former President as an unjustly victimized quasi-incumbent. It featured plenty of discussion on topics from abortion to China, crime to Ukraine, and allowed the non-Trump candidates ample opportunity to introduce themselves to voters who may have been paying scant attention to this point. Without Trump there to suck the oxygen out of the room, the other candidates could present themselves as qualified, serious and credible, perhaps persuading voters there is life for the party after Trump.
DeSantis, the highest polling candidate onstage, delivered a solid and energetic performance but largely stayed above the fray, a fundamentally defensive strategy. It was striking that the other candidates largely declined to attack him, even when prompted—potentially a sign that they believe his struggling campaign will continue to collapse. DeSantis forcefully invoked the COVID-19 and education policies that endeared him to many conservative voters. Yet he avoided answering many questions and equivocated on Ukraine, saying as president he’d call on Europe to commit more resources before sending more American dollars to help fight Putin’s aggression.
Instead, much of the other candidates’ ire focused on Ramaswamy, a political newcomer who has styled himself as a millennial mini-Trump and who seems to have gotten under the other candidates’ skin out of proportion to his modest rise in the polls. In a scene with echoes of 2015, he ridiculed the other candidates as puppets and globalists while they sought to discredit him as a naive and unqualified amateur with inconsistent views.
Pence and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered particularly feisty performances, frequently interrupting to tee off on Ramaswamy. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Haley said, accusing him of “choosing a murderer over a pro-American country” by wanting to end American aid to Ukraine. Pence repeatedly invoked Reagan and stressed his long experience in conservative politics. But recent history has shown a limited political appetite for both internationalism and experience-based appeals, particularly in the GOP, and it was fair to wonder whether populism, isolationism, and Ramaswamy’s call for “revolution” aren't more in favor with the party base these days. The attacks may have done less to discredit the newcomer than to elevate him as an intriguing and well-differentiated voice.
Scott, another candidate seen as a rising potential Trump alternative, seemed to fade into the woodwork for most of the debate, while the lowest-polling candidates, Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, did little to justify their presence onstage. Even Christie, whose trademark verbal belligerence was widely expected to light up the stage, was hardly more pugnacious than the fiery Haley and Pence, whom the moderators had to lecture to stop hogging the stage.
For long stretches of the debate, it was possible to imagine an alternate universe, where these were the only candidates vying to take on President Biden and the past eight years never happened. But as DeSantis tried to pivot to a topic he deemed more important, Baier brought him back to reality: “President Trump,” he noted, “is beating you by 30 or 40 points in many polls.”
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