UPDATE: Six of the eight contenders on the stage indicated that they would still support Donald Trump if he is the GOP nominee even if he is convicted.
But the cameras caught Ron DeSantis as he looked around at his rivals before raising his hand.
Moderator Bret Baier had asked if Trump “is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?”
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The only two who did not were Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie. And the latter looked as if he had raised his hand, but told Baier that he was waving a sign of disapproval.
“Here’s the bottom line: Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct. Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” Christie said. His remarks drew some cheers and boos.
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“This is the great thing about this country. Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth,” he said.
Baier tied his question to Trump’s latest indictment, in Georgia, with the former president due to turn himself in on Thursday to face charges of racketeering and other crimes.
Hutchinson said he “did not raise my hand because there is an important issue we as a party have to face. Over a year ago, I said that Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being president again.”
Other contenders took the opportunity to attack the justice system. Tim Scott said “we should be asking ourselves a bigger question about the weaponization of the Justice Department,” as he suggested, without evidence, that Joe Biden was targeting political opponents through the DOJ.
Nevertheless, Scott and other candidates still said that they supported Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to block the counting of the electoral votes for Biden, as Trump had urged him to do. It was a bit of a threading of a needle for many of the candidates, who have declined anything more than light criticism of Trump, yet still want to appear to back Pence’s position. “He asked me to put him over the Constitution,” Pence said. “And I chose the Constitution, and I always will.” The debate’s sole focus so far on Trump’s criminal indictments ended with a standout moment for Pence.
PREVIOUSLY: Debate moderator Martha MacCallum tried out the first raised hand question of the evening, asking the candidates, “Do you believe human behavior is causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.”
None did, and Vivek Ramaswamy said, “The climate change agenda is a hoax.” That drew boos from the audience.
The question had to do with the recent Maui fire and other environmental disasters, a topic raised by a member of the Young America’s Foundation. His concern was that the Republican party was ignoring climate change, even though it was a major issue for young voters.
Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, took the opportunity to attack the media. “One of the reasons our country’s declined is because of the way our corporate media treats Republicans versus Democrats,” he said.
There was relatively little discussion of climate change, as moderator Bret Baier moved on to one of Ramaswamy’s swipes at this rivals, that they were “bought and paid for.”
PREVIOUSLY: The first Republican presidential debate opened with rivals skirmishing a bit with each other rather than the front-runner who was not at the event, Donald Trump.
Instead, Vivek Ramaswamy, the political newcomer who has been rising in the polls, became the target.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” said former Vice President Mike Pence.
Ramaswamy came out of the gate trying to contrast himself to others in the field, saying at one point, “I’m the only person on this stage who is not bought and paid for.”
That set off former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joined in the criticism.
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said.
He compared Ramaswamy to Barack Obama, i.e. another skinny guy with an unusual name. “I feel like we are dealing with the same type of amateur standing on stage tonight.”
The first debate of the 2024 cycle featured eight candidates on the stage: Pence, Christie, Ramaswamy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
The debate format featured no opening remarks, but the first question, having to do with the themes of the breakout song Rich Men North of Richmond, essentially was an invitation to do so.
Ramaswamy seized on the opportunity to stand out from the pack as he introduced himself to a national audience, “Now that everybody’s got their memorized slogans out of the way, we can actually have a real discussion.” Then Pence interjected, “Is that one of yours?”
There were few references to Trump’s absence. He is trying to steal the thunder from the debate by doing a two-hour, pre-taped sitdown interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson on Twitter/X. As he did during the 2016 primary, Trump has attacked the network for its coverage. But the fact that he sat down with its former primetime star, let go in April, is a blatant effort to upstage Fox News on a night when it is expecting a significant viewer uptick.
The former president’s complaints continued through Wednesday evening, as he posted on his social media platform, Truth Social, about Fox News’s pre-debate commentary. He wrote, “I AM LEADING BIDEN IN ALMOST ALL POLLS! LEADING REPUBLICANS BY 50 POINTS. FOX NEWS REFUSES TO POST OR DISCUSS. BRIT HUME, WORKING WITH RINO BRET BAIER, IS DELUSIONAL!!!”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s campaign went up with their first national ad of the 2024 cycle, as it purchased time during Fox News’s pre-debate coverage.
Trump’s refusal to participate in the debate made the event, held at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, an unusual battle by his rivals to emerge as a serious rival. But it also was expected to put on display how they are handling the former president’s multiple indictments, something that has created an unprecedented situation in American history. Some candidates, like DeSantis, have attacked the justice system rather than Trump, and a leaked memo from his SuperPAC indicated a desire by its advisers for him to go after Ramaswamy, gaining ground in the polls, instead.
With Trump’s absence, Fox News host Sean Hannity said that it would instead give other candidates an opportunity. “For all the talk about Donald Trump not coming, I think these guys, they should be glad he’s not coming because he sucks out about 98.5% of all the oxygen in the room.”
To qualify for the debate stage, candidates must have had a minimum of 40,000 donors and to have reached at least 1% in three national polls or a combination of two national and two early-state polls. Candidates also needed to sign a pledge vowing to support the eventual nominee. Trump has not signed the pledge and did not qualify, but he had already said that he would skip the event.
Candidates who didn’t make the stage tried to make their presence known in other ways. Radio host Larry Elder, appearing outside the arena, said he planned to file a Federal Election Committee complaint against the Republican National Committee, while businessman Perry Johnson, another contender, said he filed one against the RNC and Fox News for “a collusive effort to cherry pick participants.” Rep, Will Hurd (R-TX) appeared on CNN earlier in the day.
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