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Trumpless GOP debate still offers plenty of drama and fireworks as eight Republicans take advantage of frontrunner’s absence

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MILWAUKEE — If Republican voters were worried that a presidential debate without frontrunner Donald Trump would be boring, the eight GOP candidates who squared off Wednesday night did their best to prove them wrong.

The eight had just two hours to prove to the GOP base that they are viable alternatives to the indicted former president.

And even without the combative and bombastic Trump, the night still offered plenty of heated rhetoric, personal jabs and candidates interrupting and talking over one another.

For Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who trailed Trump this week in a pivotal Iowa poll by 23 percentage points, the goal was to show Republican voters he can take the lead should the Trump train go off the tracks. 

But despite DeSantis’ second-place showing in polls, attacks were not centered on the Florida governor.

Instead, several others seemed more intent on knocking down Vivek Ramaswamy, a wealthy biotech entrepreneur.

The political newcomer has put himself roundly in third place by aligning himself with Trump and appearing on a plethora of television interviews and podcasts with controversial views, such as shutting down the FBI and the Education Department and cutting 75% of executive-branch employees.

“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told Ramaswamy in a spirited exchange Wednesday night.

It took candidates about 56 minutes to be asked about Trump. They were much more interested in criticizing Democratic President Joe Biden.

Dubbing the former GOP president facing four indictments the “elephant not in the room,” moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the nominee if he’s convicted.

Republican presidential candidates (left to right), former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season on Wednesday.

Republican presidential candidates (left to right), former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season on Wednesday.

DeSantis reluctantly raised a hand, and former Alabama Gov. Asa Hutchinson kept his hands down. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waved a hand but then said he wouldn’t support Trump.

“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct, OK?” Christie said as many in the audience booed. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”

Earlier, DeSantis refused to partake in a similar hands-up poll about whether human behavior has caused climate change — a question moderators abandoned quickly. 

“We’re not school children. Let’s have the debate,” DeSantis said. 

“Climate change is a hoax,” Ramaswamy declared.

DeSantis and Ramaswamy were the only two who said they would not support increasing funding to support Ukraine.

But the 37-year-old Ramaswamy trained much of his ammunition on the other candidates, attacking some before they lit into him.

Ramaswamy dubbed the others on stage as “super PAC puppets.” He called himself a “patriot who speaks the truth.” He said he stands “on the side of the American revolution.”

And he said he wouldn’t support increasing aid to Ukraine, receiving boos when he said the war-torn country is “not a priority for the United States of America.” DeSantis said he also doesn’t support increased aid, saying Europe and Japan should “pull their weight.” 

Haley, who also served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations lit into Ramaswamy, accusing him of “defunding Israel.” She also blasted him for his position on Ukraine. Haley called Vladimir Putin a “murderer.” 

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argue during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel on Wednesday.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argue during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel on Wednesday.

In another exchange, Haley spoke over DeSantis, saying, “We can do both at the same time,” after the Florida governor said he’d rather send border agents to target drug pushers than send troops to Ukraine.

“We’re going to use force, and we’re going to leave them stone cold dead,” DeSantis said. 

In a question about whether former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing in telling Trump he would not reject electors on Jan. 6, Christie offered a lengthy defense of the former Indiana governor — and criticism of Trump.

Christie has run a campaign platform based on attacking Trump, a former ally of the New Jersey governor.

“Mike Pence stood for the Constitution, and he deserves not grudging credit. He deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office and the Constitution of the United States before personal politics and unfair pressure,” Christie said. 

Pushed to answer whether Pence did the right thing, DeSantis offered, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” while urging that Republicans move on from Jan. 6 and focus on 2024. 

Answering the same question, Pence said, Trump “asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution. And I always will.” 

Earlier, Christie and Pence took additional digs at Ramaswamy, with Christie saying he’d “had enough today of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” 

Pence jabbed at Ramaswamy for his lack of political experience, saying, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

During Wednesday’s debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) speaks as (left to right) former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy react and listen.  

During Wednesday’s debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) speaks as (left to right) former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy react and listen.

One-liners and attacks aside, the candidates tried to squeeze in their policy plans and quick hits of their biographies. Asked about a federal abortion plan, candidates tried to prove who offered the most pro-life stance. 

“It’s not a states’ issue. It’s a moral issue,” Pence said. “And I promise you as president of the United States, the American people will have a champion for life in the Oval Office.”

Sen. Tim Scott, one of just three Black U.S. senators, was largely spared any attacks or back-and-forths — and stuck largely to his campaign talking points. He has said he would support “the most conservative legislation, pro-life legislation” that can get to his desk if elected. On the debate stage, Scott said Americans deserve a president who will fight for a 15-week federal abortion ban.

Republican presidential candidates (left to right), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season on Wednesday.

Republican presidential candidates (left to right), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season on Wednesday.

“We cannot let states like California, New York, Illinois have abortions on demand up until the day of birth,” Scott said. “That is immoral.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum took a different stance, saying he does not support a 15-week federal abortion ban, arguing the Constitution granted certain duties to the federal government and the rest are left to the states.

“We need to get back to the freedom and liberty for the people in this country,” Burgum said.

In a question about crime, Burgum told the audience the focus is always on big cities, and not small towns that are facing crime waves.

“One thing that I think this country could use is somebody in the White House who understands the small town values, because that’s the road back to get this country on track,” Burgum said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on Wednesday.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on Wednesday.

The debate marked Burgum’s highest profile chance to gain momentum in a campaign in which he’s tried to stray from social issues and Trump. Burgum raised some eyebrows when he offered $20 gift cards in exchange for donating as little as $1 to his campaign — to meet the donor threshold requirement of 40,000 unique contributors.

A late addition to the debate stage, Hutchinson used a similar strategy, using a text-for-pay campaign offering college students $20 for every person they could get to donate $1 to his campaign. Hutchinson has repeatedly called for Trump to drop out of the race. And he did so on the debate stage as well.

“We have to have respect for our justice system and the rule of law, and it starts at the top with the president of the United States,” Hutchinson said.



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