Trumpless GOP debate offers plenty of drama, fireworks in front-runner’s absence

Eight of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls sparred in Milwaukee Wednesday in their first debate, sponsored by Fox News.

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Republican presidential candidates Mike Pence Ron DeSantis Vivek Ramaswamy debate GOP Fiserv Forum Milwaukee

Republican presidential candidates (from left) former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy debate Wednesday at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

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MILWAUKEE — If Republican voters were worried that a presidential debate without front-runner Donald Trump would be boring, the 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.

Even without the combative and bombastic Trump, the night 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 that he can take the lead should the Trump train go off the tracks.

Despite DeSantis’ second-place showing in polls, attacks were not centered on him. Instead, several debaters 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.

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

Calling 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 Mike Pence Ron DeSantis debate GOP

Mike Pence (left) and Ron DeSantis debate Wednesday.

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DeSantis raised his hand, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson kept his 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 schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate,” DeSantis said.

“The climate change agenda is a hoax,” Ramaswamy declared.

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

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

He referred to others onstage as “super PAC puppets” and to himself as a “patriot who speaks the truth.” He said he stands “on the side of the American revolution.”

He said he wouldn’t support more aid to Ukraine and was booed when he said the war-torn country is “not a priority for the United States of America.” DeSantis also said 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. She called Vladimir Putin a “murderer.”

Vivek Ramaswamy Nikki Haley Republican presidential primary debate GOP

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argue Wednesday.

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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.”

GOP Republican debate Chris Christie Mike Pence Ron DeSantis Vivek Ramaswamy

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (from left) addresses Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Morry Gash/AP

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 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 Nikki Haley Tim Scott debate GOP primary

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley listens as U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks Wednesday.

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“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 Doug Burgum debate GOP primary Republican

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by Fox News at the Fiserv Forum Wednesday.

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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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