Trump is ‘elephant not in the room’ at first GOP debate

MILWAUKEE – For almost an hour, the eight candidates on the stage of the first Republican presidential debate talked about just about everything but former President Donald Trump and his unprecedented legal peril.

That was until Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked the contenders to confront the “elephant not in the room” — the four indictments against Trump and his expected surrender Thursday to Fulton County authorities on charges of plotting to overturn his defeat.

That opened the door to the sharpest clashes of the two-hour showdown at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, as rival factions bickered over whether former Vice President Mike Pence acted appropriately when he refused Trump’s demand to block President Joe Biden’s victory.

Wealthy executive Vivek Ramaswamy aggressively staked out ground as a Trump defender who challenged his opponents to join his pledge to pardon the former president on “day one” if he’s convicted of charges.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a distant second to Trump in most polls, sought a middle ground as he repeated the former president’s critique of the criminal justice system while offering mild support for Pence’s actions.

And then there was former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who presented himself as a sharp-elbowed truth-teller who said Pence deserves the nation’s enduring gratitude — and that Trump isn’t fit to return to the presidency.

“Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct,” he said as an explosion of cheers and boos echoed through the arena. “Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”

As jeers threatened to drown him out, Christie offered a dismissive shrug: “That’s the great thing about this country,” he said. “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.”

Pence, meanwhile, seemed almost forgotten in the clash over his momentous decision, which avoided a constitutional crisis and fueled the furor of a pro-Trump mob that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

”He asked me to put him over the Constitution,” Pence said of Trump. “I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”

A high-stakes test

The clash punctuated the high-stakes test for Trump’s rivals, offering them a chance to demonstrate why they deserve the party’s nod over an unquestioned front-runner who has gained strength in the polls as his legal problems grow.

That presented an unusual showdown between eight contenders fixated on ways to beat a conspicuously absent Trump. He boycotted the event and instead released a pre-taped interview with former Fox anchor Tucker Carlson just as it began.

Trump’s legal peril loomed over the event, though Fox News anchors waited almost an hour to invoke the charges by flashing an image of the Fulton County Jail to boos from some in the crowd.

Facing 91 felony counts in four jurisdictions, Trump said he will “proudly” report to the Atlanta facility on Thursday to fight charges that he orchestrated a far-reaching “criminal enterprise” with 18 allies.

In an image that will undoubtedly resurface throughout the 2024 campaign, the candidates were asked if they would support a victorious Trump even if he was convicted of a crime. Six raised their hands. Christie indicated he wouldn’t and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson kept his hands behind the podium.

But Trump was no undercurrent in the debate. Instead, the moderators peppered the contenders with questions about federal spending and surveyed their plans to crack down on violent crime.

That triggered clashes over federal spending policy, public safety proposals and abortion limits — all issues that energize conservative voters — as candidates took advantage of the Trump-free opportunity to soak up attention and woo conservative voters.

One sharp difference emerged over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has divided Republican candidates over the extent of U.S. support for Ukrainian forces.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley seized the chance to highlight her foreign policy experience — and criticize DeSantis’ for once characterizing the war as a territorial dispute. And she pivoted to an attack on Ramaswamy for saying he’d curb military support for Israel.

“You don’t do that to friends,” she said.

She wasn’t the only one to take shots at Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate who has donated to both Democrats and Republicans and skipped three presidential elections since 2004.

“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie snapped at Ramaswamy after Ramaswamy accused his rivals of being corrupted by Washington. He went on to unfavorably compare the 38-year-old to an “amateur” Barack Obama.

The debate’s ‘loser’

The debate presented a particularly stark challenge for DeSantis, who has faltered amid bad poll numbers, mounting pressure from donors, and repeated staff shakeups. At times, he tried to float above the fray, training his focus on the White House.

He promised to “reverse Bidenomics” to fight rising inflation and presented his conservative record in Florida as a contrast to a liberal White House, including touting a new law that imposed stiff abortion restrictions and a culture-wars feud with Disney.

For others, the debate offered an opportunity to introduce themselves to a broader audience. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott tried to maintain a sunny demeanor throughout the two-hour showdown, while Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum fought for airtime.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to the Ruthless Podcast in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023.

Credit: Contributed photo

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed photo

The spectacle in Milwaukee also drew leading Georgia Republicans. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene gushed over Trump to media outlets, declaring that he has “already won” another term because of his strong standing in national polls.

Gov. Brian Kemp made a surprise appearance — and stoked speculation about his own future ambitions — at a podcast taping outside Fiserv Forum where he slammed Trump for skipping the debate.

“I think the Trump campaign is making a big mistake by not being here. They are my loser tonight,” Kemp said to the hosts of the Ruthless Podcast, later emphasizing his stance with more colorful language.

“If you’re as good as you say you are, get your ass on there, answer the questions, fight it out,” said Kemp. “Let’s get it done.”