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Republicans jockey for second place in the first primary debate

Trump skipped the debate, having instead recorded an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Collage of GOP candidates participating in the Milwaukee debate
Eight Republican presidential candidates are debating Wednesday night — but without front-runner Donald Trump.Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

MILWAUKEE — The elephant wasn't in the room.

But former President Donald Trump was still top of mind as Republican hopefuls took the stage here Wednesday night for the first presidential primary debate of the 2024 election.

Seven of the eight candidates raised their hands when asked if they would support him should he be convicted of a crime and still win the GOP nomination.

While they all skirmished to be seen as the first challenger to the former president, Trump — who skipped the debate — tried to pivot to the general election by bashing President Joe Biden in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the platform formerly known as Twitter.

"I think he's worse mentally than he is physically," Trump said when asked whether Biden, who faces little primary challenge, would be on the ballot next November. "And physically, he's not a triathlete or any kind of athlete."

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At the same time, the candidates in the debate hall alternated between ripping Biden — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did that repeatedly — and savaging each other. They fought over personal traits and substance, from levels of experience, to abortion and American aid to Ukraine.

For them, the debate was a chance to bare their claws in the battle for second place in pre-primary polling. For Trump, it was yet another self-made opportunity to upend the Republican Party and the political world, this time on the eve of his surrender to Georgia authorities.

"We always knew Trump would be the focus of this debate, whether he showed up or not," said Elijah Haahr, a Republican former Missouri House speaker and the host of a Missouri radio program.

Follow our live coverage of tonight’s Republican debate

But that didn't mean the contestants wanted to talk about him early or often.

Most of an hour had elapsed before the candidates were asked to show whether they would back a convicted and nominated Trump for president. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only one who declined to raise his hand, though DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were slow to be counted.

Later, when asked whether former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing by certifying the 2020 election results, several said or suggested that he did.

"Absolutely, he did the right thing," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was largely overshadowed by the other candidates.

But DeSantis ducked that question, arguing that Republicans should look forward to what happens at the start of the next presidential term rather than what happened in the last one.

Left to their own devices, the candidates seemed to bend over backward not to talk about Trump.

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Instead, they homed in on one another's vulnerabilities, with the surging newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy taking more incoming rhetorical fire than any other hopeful.

He absorbed blows early from Pence and Christie, and later from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Both focused on the inexperience that Ramaswamy has described as an asset. Pence talked about the need for a president to deal with every issue that comes his way.

"Let me explain it to you," Pence said as he tried to make his point a second time. "I'll go slowly this time."

Christie noted that Ramaswamy referred to himself as a skinny guy with a "funny" name — and that it is a very similar construct to the one former President Barack Obama used as a new candidate in 2007. Obama is not a favorite of Republican primary voters.

Abortion brought out the widest spectrum of views in the first part of the debate, with Haley and Pence tussling over whether there should be a national abortion ban — and the practicality of pursuing that. Pence favors the national ban.

DeSantis hinted that he would sign a national abortion ban but stopped short of saying it explicitly.

"I’m going to stand on the side of life," he said of outlawing the procedure across the country.

The inescapable truth for the rest of the field is that Trump, a two-time defending winner of the GOP nomination, holds commanding leads in national surveys and polls of the early primary states. Some Republican officials and strategists believe that if one challenger can consolidate support from non-Trump voters, he can be vanquished.

But so far, second place hasn't proved to be much of a blessing for the man who has occupied it since before he stepped into the ring: DeSantis. He has experienced a summer swoon, dropping closer to the rest of the pack instead of gaining ground on Trump. That made it incumbent on him to give Republicans a clear idea of why they should vote for him, according to allies.

"DeSantis needs to make sure to make the debate about policy and what he's going to do for voters — and not let the debate be all about the one candidate who is not on the stage," said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor and surrogate, said before the debate began.

Because of his stumbles, DeSantis received a lot of counsel about what he must do in the debate, some of it in a very public memo from Never Back Down, the super PAC that supports him.

A longtime DeSantis bundler said that from his perspective, things could get dicey for DeSantis if his performance doesn't move the needle, especially with the donor class.

“He has to stick to the landing,” the person said. “Without Trump on the stage, he has to show he is the guy. If not, the money will dry up.” And, the person added, a poor showing would create "total chaos" for DeSantis.

But that is exactly why some allies said a steady performance could help him stabilize his campaign and create a springboard for the coming months. And DeSantis delivered on that, in part because he simply wasn't the target of many attacks and in part because he stayed on message.

Eberhart was pleased with the result.

"DeSantis assertively laid out his vision for America and showed he is ready to be president," he said.

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Christie was the one candidate who took a big swing at Trump.

"Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct," he said, moments after he agreed to support Trump if the former president wins the nomination again. "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." 

His willingness to hit Trump has helped him move up in polls in New Hampshire, but he isn't competing at all in the first state on the calendar — Iowa — and his support for a nominee Trump cuts against his criticism.

Similarly, Pence has struggled to gain traction. For him, the problem is the combination of voters he has alienated: Trump supporters who blame him for certifying their 2020 election loss and centrists who find his record and platform too conservative for their tastes.

Ramaswamy had played down his preparation for the debate. He told NBC News two weeks ago that he didn't want to lose the edge of freshness by sounding over-rehearsed. That set him up to go one of at least two ways: extend the appeal of his free-wheeling style, or look woefully unprepared for the most serious of job interviews.

His first answer to a question was a self-introduction ripped from his stump speech, which Christie was ready to pounce on as Obama-esque and "amateur."

Two of South Carolina's most prominent politicians — Haley and Scott — may find that there's not enough room for both of them in the primary. Both risked getting knocked out by falling flat, and Scott did little to distinguish himself.

The candidate who bore the heaviest limp on his way to the stage: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. He tore an Achilles tendon playing basketball Tuesday, according to his campaign.

While there were substantive disagreements among the candidates, and a lot of personal invective, there were also moments of levity — such as when Christie was asked, toward the end of the debate, about a possible increase in unidentified flying objects.

"I get the UFO question?" he said to laughter. "C’mon.”

The debate is certain to give the various campaigns hours or even most of a day to argue over who won and who lost.

But by the time Trump turns himself in to be booked in Georgia on Thursday night, the debate may be a distant memory for at least some share of the viewers. And for others, it will be the second-tier event they didn't keep an eye on.

"Seventy-five percent of the engaged primary electorate will be watching the debate because they are in the shopping mode," Brad Todd, a GOP consultant, said before the debate. "Twenty-five percent will watch Trump’s interview with Tucker. Zero percent of Republican primary voters will watch anything about the Georgia case."