Republican rivals, especially Pence, Ramaswamy, and Haley, clash sharply in combative debate

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From left, Republican presidential candidates: former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson; former New Jersey governor Chris Christie; former vice president Mike Pence; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley; Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.); and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott

MILWAUKEE – Republican presidential contenders targeted each other Wednesday as much as they did the absent front-runner, Donald Trump, in a combative first debate with a series of heated clashes reflecting the fierce competition to emerge as the main alternative to the former president.

Trump’s decision to skip the event, a choice that highlighted his commanding polling lead, left him without a defense over two hours that marked the official start of the nomination battle. His biggest consolation came when all but two of the candidates onstage clearly raised their hands to signal that they would support Trump if he won the nomination and was convicted of a crime in a court of law. Trump has been indicted four times and faces 91 criminal charges and will surrender in Georgia on Thursday.

But the debate more often pivoted around other fiery exchanges between candidates who are seeking to differentiate themselves, including several involving entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has risen in some polls and appeared to irritate other candidates onstage. The first-time millennial candidate is casting his candidacy as a next iteration of Trump and got into tense back-and-forths with more experienced politicians, including former vice president Mike Pence, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

He aggressively attacked his rivals on the stage from the start, describing them as “super PAC puppets” and “professional politicians” who were “bought and paid for.”

“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said in response. “The last person in one of these debates . . . who stood in the middle of the stage and said what’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here was Barack Obama, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight.”

A noticeably combative Pence, who repeatedly talked over the moderators’ pleas to abide by time limits and went directly after several rivals, took aim at Ramaswamy’s lack of political experience, saying that “now is not the time for on-the-job training” and that “we don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

Much of the debate onstage was not about policy but about each candidate’s personal characteristics and experience. And for large portions, the candidates largely ignored Trump – though some of them criticized him on particular issues.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with a fiery demeanor attacked Trump for agreeing to lock down the country during the pandemic on the advice of former White House medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci. Trump allies have noted repeatedly that DeSantis praised Fauci early in the pandemic as well.

“I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down. You don’t take somebody like Fauci and coddle him. You bring Fauci in, you sit him down, and you say: Anthony, you are fired,” DeSantis said.

Haley blamed Trump for failing to rein in spending. “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us,” she said. Later in the debate, she called Trump “the most disliked politician in America,” drawing some boos. “We can’t win a general election that way,” Haley said, calling for a “new generation.”

At points, the crowd stepped in to defend the former president, booing Christie audibly when he denounced Trump’s “conduct.”

“This is the great thing about this country – booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth,” Christie said, as the crowd continued to boo.

To the surprise of some DeSantis foes and supporters, his rivals largely avoided attacking him. DeSantis, who has lost traction over the summer but remains Trump’s closest competitor in national polls, hit many of the talking points he has used on the campaign trail, attacking liberal overreach, recounting his successes in Florida and calling for an end to the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement against Republicans.

His rivals, however, mostly avoided direct conflict with him, choosing to duel with each other over policy, or to joust with Ramaswamy.

“Vivek, you recently said that a president can’t do everything. Well I’ve got news for you, Vivek,” Pence said. “I’ve been in a hallway, I’ve been in the West Wing, the president of the United States has to confront every crisis facing America.”

One of the debate’s defining moments came when Fox News moderator Bret Baier directly asked the candidates if they would support “the elephant not in the room” if he was convicted in a court of law. With some delay, all of the candidates onstage, except former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, raised their hand. Christie waved a finger but then clarified that he did not approve of Trump’s conduct and the party needed to move on. DeSantis looked around and was among the last to raise his hand.

Hutchinson suggested that Trump was disqualified under the “insurrection clause” of the U.S. Constitution. “I am not going to support somebody who has been convicted of a felony or has been disqualified by the U.S. Constitution,” he said.

Many of the candidates onstage, including Christie, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Haley also praised Pence for refusing Trump’s demands to reject presidential electors following the 2020 election. DeSantis initially refused to answer the direct question, arguing that it looked backward in a way that would benefit Democrats.

“Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis later said, after Pence demanded that he answer.

“He asked me to put him over the constitution, and I chose the constitution,” Pence said, who kept talking about Jan. 6 as the moderators and other candidates attempted to move on.

Ramaswamy was the most defensive of Trump, saying that others should pardon him and defending Trump’s foreign policy positions.

The debate marked the end of the 2024 campaign’s preseason, a months-long sprint through fundraisers, town halls and early-state fried food that has so far been overshadowed by the former president’s mounting legal troubles and continued knack for channeling his party’s bubbling frustration with the nation’s plight.

For each of the candidates, the event long loomed as a pivotal strategic moment, promising a chance to demonstrate their presidential mettle, establish their contrasting vision and introduce themselves to a primary electorate that has yet to fully engage with the presidential contest.

Haley, whose campaign has yet to gain traction, leaned into her foreign policy experience and engaged in back and forth exchanges with the other contenders on the stage, including Pence, Ramaswamy and DeSantis. At one point she also told the moderators they needed to “get control of this debate.” In another moment, she took a shot at Ramaswamy, telling him: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.” She also at times offered criticism of her own party, including on the federal deficit.

And Haley emphasized her role as the only woman on the stage. “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” she said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Hutchinson, who had hoped the debate would give them much needed exposure, spent must of the debate off-screen as their more well-known rivals squabbled. Scott doubled down on his campaign approach, offering an optimistic, more softly spoken vision, but was silent for long stretches of the debate.

There were some policy differences in the debate, particularly on Ukraine and abortion. The candidates split on their commitment to more funding for the war to push back Russia’s invasion. Pence, Haley and Christie firmly sided with further support, while Ramaswamy objected and DeSantis called for European countries to pick up more of the bill.

“The reality is that today Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy said. “You cannot start another no-win war.”

Haley responded sharply. “Ukraine is the first line of defense for us, and the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel,” she said. “You don’t do that to friends.”

When it came to abortion, Pence, who has challenged the other Republican contenders to back a 15-week abortion ban as a minimum standard, took a shot at Haley’s call for a consensus on abortion, telling the former U.N. ambassador that “consensus is the opposite of leadership.”

“When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn’t just send it to the states only,” Pence said. “It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue.”

Haley responded that it was time to “be honest with the American people,” noting there aren’t sufficient votes in the Senate for a federal abortion ban to pass.

“No Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban all those state laws,” Haley said. “Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes.”

Trump, who had long signaled he would not participate in the debate and made his decision official in recent days, sat for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that published online just before the debate started.

In the interview, Trump suggested that the United States could see more political violence.

“I don’t know. There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen,” Trump said, when asked if the country is headed to open conflict. “There’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen. And that’s probably a bad combination.”

Though Trump was not onstage, his advisers were present at the event, training their fire on DeSantis. “Ron DeSanctimonious’s campaign died tonight as he was leapfrogged by Vivek Ramaswamy. He needed a breakout performance, and he failed,” said Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump.

The Republican National Committee required candidates to have at least 40,000 donors and to hit at least one 1 percent in qualifying national and state polls to make the first debate stage.

To qualify for the second debate, on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., they will need to get 50,000 donors and hit at least 3 percent in two national polls, or 3 percent in one national poll and 3 percent in two polls conducted from separate early-nominating states.

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