GOP hopefuls (sans Trump) hit debate stage

Republican presidential candidates argued about abortion rights, U.S. support for Ukraine and experience. All but one said they would support former president and front-runner for 2024, Donald Trump, who did not attend the debate and is facing numerous criminal charges.

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August 24, 2023 - 3:23 PM

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 23: Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 8 presidential hopefuls squared off in the first Republican debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined to participate in the event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Republican presidential candidates vying to be the leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump fought — sometimes bitterly — over abortion rights, U.S. support for Ukraine and the type of experience needed to manage an expansive federal government during the first debate of the 2024 campaign.

But when it came to arguably the most consequential choice facing the party, virtually everyone on the debate stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night lined up behind Trump, who declined to participate, citing his commanding lead. Most said they would support Trump as their nominee even if he is convicted in a series of cases that range from his handling of classified documents to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his role in making hush money payments to a porn actress and other women.

“Let’s just speak the truth,” said tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. “President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact.”

In the face of such an unprecedented moment in American politics, that sentiment was a reminder of the power Trump continues to wield in the party and the reluctance of most GOP White House hopefuls to directly confront him or his norm-breaking activity. And it spoke to the struggle of any single candidate in the crowded field to emerge as a credible counter to Trump with less than five months until the Iowa caucuses formally jumpstart the GOP presidential nomination process.

That challenge was particularly acute for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has since struggled to gain traction. He was sometimes eclipsed on Wednesday by lower-polling candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, a generally understated politician who demonstrated an aggressive side as he positioned himself as the most experienced candidate on stage.

Pence along with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sparred frequently with Ramaswamy. The goal for almost every candidate was to use the event, hosted by Fox News, to displace DeSantis from his distant second-place standing and introduce themselves to viewers who are just tuning into the race.

WHILE THE candidates repeatedly tangled — often talking over moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum — most refused to oppose Trump as the nominee, even if he becomes a convicted felon. The question came nearly an hour into the debate and a day before Trump is set to surrender in Georgia on charges of trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election.

The moderators appeared apologetic about even raising the issue of a potentially incarcerated nominee, saying they would spend just a “brief moment” discussing the man they called “the elephant not in the room,” which drew boos from the audience.

“Someone’s got to stop normalizing misconduct. 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,” said Christie, a onetime Trump ally who has since become a fierce critic.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only person who clearly refused to raise his hand, indicating he would not support Trump as the nominee if he was convicted.

DeSantis was among those who did raise his hand. He said Pence “did his duty” on Jan. 6, 2021, when he refused to go along with Trump’s unconstitutional scheme to overturn the vote, but nonetheless pressed the hosts to move on.

“This election is not about Jan. 6, 2021. It’s about Jan. 20 of 2025 when the next president is going to take office,” he said.

For his part, Pence defended his decision not to overturn the election in Trump’s favor, a move that ended their strong partnership, saying he upheld his oath to defend the constitution.

Trump, who had long said he felt it would be foolish to participate in the debate given his dominant lead in the race, followed through with his threat to skip the Fox event in a blow to the network. Instead, Trump pre-recorded an interview with ex-Fox host Tucker Carlson that was posted to the platform formerly known as Twitter right before the debate kicked off.

“Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?” Trump said.

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