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Republican debate without Donald Trump: Still too much to lose for rivals hoping someone else takes him down

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Did anyone make up ground on Donald Trump? On the question of the night, the answer is probably not.

There is more to Republican politics than Donald Trump and we saw a lot of it last night.

But what we didn’t see from the eight candidates who were on stage was the emergence of a natural contender for the one who wasn’t there.

Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum before the first Republican presidential debate Pic: AP
Image:
Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum before the first Republican presidential debate. Pic: AP

For all the talk of Ron DeSantis and his need to re-ignite an ailing campaign, debate night wasn’t the night for it.

Centre-stage as the challenger-in-chief, there was no hiding the charisma deficit.

The Florida governor famously struggles with the performance of politics.

On politics per se, he played a steady hand without the change in strategy on the big competition issue – how to handle Trump.

He raised his hand when asked if he would still support him should he be convicted.

When asked if former vice-president Mike Pence did the right thing when he certified the results of the 2020 election in defiance of 6 January rioters, he didn’t give a definitive answer.

It was an opportunity to break with Trump, to go on the attack.

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Trump skips Republican debates for interview

The fact that DeSantis declined reflects the reach of the rival out in front.

The prevailing view on the debate stage – six out of eight indicated they would continue to support Trump if convicted – appears, still, to be that there’s too much to lose by criticising the former president.

Better to stay aligned, hope that someone or something else takes him down and that loyalty will be rewarded in decanted votes.

It is the gamble that hasn’t paid out so far – too early, perhaps, to make the stick or twist call.

Read more:
The debate – as it happened
No natural contender emerged during Trump’s cosy chat
It’s very, very close – Trump could win again

Nikki Haley was widely regarded as having had a good debate. The former US ambassador to the United Nations asserted a gravitas that was lacking in others.

Vivek Ramaswamy – the business entrepreneur railing, Trump-style, against the political establishment – was eye-catching and will derive a recognition bounce.

In the party of Donald Trump, however, recognition is relative.

And, for the eight candidates on stage, relatively low.

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