Republican rivals clash sharply in combative debate with no Trump

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Pence speech

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

Trump’s decision to skip the event, a choice that highlighted his commanding polling lead, left him without a designated defender over two hours that marked the official start of the nomination battle. His biggest consolation came when all but one of the candidates onstage raised their hands to signal they would support Trump if he won the nomination and was convicted of a crime in a court of law. At other points, the candidates attacked him over his policies and political standing.

But the debate more often pivoted around other fiery exchanges, including several involving entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a first-time millennial candidate running as a next iteration of Trump who stressed his outsider status and got into tense back-and-forth arguments with two longtime politicians, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Many of the early minutes of the debate were dominated by the 38-year-old upstart, who has gained some early traction. 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 Chat GPT 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 much of it, the candidates largely ignored Trump. When prompted, they engaged in exchanges that highlighted disagreements with each over the former president’s record.

And there were occasional slashing attacks against Trump.

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.

“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.

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 attacks on 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.”

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki 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.”

At points, the crowd stepped in to defend the president, booing Christie when he denounced Trump’s politics of division and jeering questions about criminal investigations into Trump.

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 and then qualified his support by saying the party needed to move on.

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.

Pence said Trump wrongly asked the former vice president to put himself ahead of the Constitution. Hutchinson said Trump did not deserve another four years of the presidency because of his actions on Jan. 6.

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 leaned into 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.

One exception to the more personal exchanges came on policy over Ukraine, where 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.”

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.

Though Trump was not onstage, his advisers were present at the event, training their fire on DeSantis, whom they continue to see as their greatest threat for the nomination. “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.

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19 thoughts on “Republican rivals clash sharply in combative debate with no Trump

  1. The governor from North Dakota was the only one who seemed like an actual conservative to me. He actually came off as a thoughtful and authentic person. Chris Christie would be a decent president, but has no chance of winning the cult over during the primary. Nikki Haley performed well, but doesn’t seem to have consistent beliefs. Vivek is insane, which is already Trump’s lane. He won’t beat Trump, so I expect him or Kari Lake to be Trump’s VP nominee.

    1. Burgum: Pure establishment crony. Ardently supported lockdowns in his state.

      Chris Christie: Permanent sour grapes after not getting a cabinet position under #45, somehow thinks supporting gender affirming care on children is something conservatives will get behind.

      Nikki Haley: Burgum in high heels. Plays identity politics when she thinks it’ll help her candidacy, though it never well.

      Imagine thinking Vivek “knows nothing about international affiars” when compared to a person who has gotten us into a $4B+ proxy war with Russia while enriching the fortunes of the Clown Prince of Ukraine. Would Ramaswamy do better than mashpotatobrain? Possibly not, but he couldn’t do worse. Why is it so hard for #46 to prioritize his own constituency over a post-Soviet breadbasketcase for even 10 minutes? Is it because Hawaii is so deep blue he can take them for granted?

      Verdict: if Wesley H thinks it’s a good candidate…it’s a bad candidate.

      If a nonentity like Burgum, or Haley, or Christie become the person rigged to win the primaries, then RFK Jr is probably the best candidate for the generals.

    2. Lauren B: MAGA>everything. Literally everything. Law and order doesn’t matter. Morals don’t matter. Facts don’t matter. Ignorance is bliss.

    3. Wesley–

      Lecture me about morals! And facts! And Law and Order! Help cure me from my cult! You’re so much smarter than me, and the ecosystem you live in is truly flourishing under #46. I mean, homicides are back to 1980s levels and you want to tell me about “law and order”. So funny.

      Make sure to wear a balaclava when you bash me upside the head at my next Deplorable Rally. Actually, never mind–you probably won’t need to. As long as you have the right politics, you’ll get nothing more than a slap on the wrist…which in turn explains why Democrat-run areas are turning into “Max Max” facsimiles.

      if not balaclavas, are you at least putting your mask on again? Get ready–it’s time to scare people again so the uniparty can work with their friends in corporate America to rig a bunch more elections.

    4. Oh Lauren, I’d be scared to live in your alternate reality. I like Deplorable Rally, I’ll start using that one. Hillary truly hit the nail on the head. It’s funny how basically everything she predicted about what would happen if Trump won came true. I wish she had been better on the campaign trail.

    1. There is something to be said about a person who’s able to work across the aisle and get reelected as a Republican in a blue state. I’d be just as impressed if a Democrat were to win the governor’s office in Indiana, and get reelected four years later. He was also one of the few on the stage who will tell the truth even when he knows he’ll get booed.

      Vivek is insane and I’m not exaggerating at all. He’s actually somehow more horrific than Trump. He seems to know absolutely nothing about international affairs, and the importance of the United States standing by our allies. He thinks climate change is a hoax, yet wants to be my generations new leader. Good luck with that lol.

      And as Greg said below, he comes off as an entitled frat boy. I used to have friends like him and realized quickly how toxic people like him are. Like Trump, he’s a narcissist who craves attention. He’ll always put himself before the country, and we saw how that worked out in January 2021.

  2. Growing up in Indiana, the vast majority of my friends and neighbors were Republicans but we all got along just fine. This has all changed, as today’s Republicans have overwhelming indicated they will support Donald Trump for President, even if he is convicted in one or more of the criminal cases he currently faces. This is no longer about being a proud American or patriot, it is totally about authoritarian rule, with a Christian Nationalism flavor.

    1. I’d argue that their voters have stopped caring about the Christian part. Mike Pence or Tim Scott would be doing better if that mattered anymore. Their base views politics like sports now. They want MAGA to win no matter how morally repugnant the candidate is. “Christian values” (or criminal convictions) aren’t important as long as they own the libs. It’s seriously disgusting. I can’t imagine being so obsessed with a politician that I’d fly their flag in my yard alongside the American flag. They get obsessed with people like Trump and Vivek like teenage girls obsessing over Taylor Swift.

    2. Wesley, thank you for your comment. Christian Nationalism is not about religion or Christianity; it is about supremacy (generally white), wrapping itself in a flag of Christianity to try to look legitimate. As a Catholic, I have seen so many in my own church who have abandoned the Gospels of Jesus for the ramblings of a man who has never once exhibited any sort of Christian behavior, yet they view him as the second coming of Christ.

    3. What’s hilarious is that you think Christian nationalism exists but can’t see how it’s nothing more than a group of people who normally disagree on 60% doctrinal, going up against a pseudo-religious cult called Wokeism that elevates humans to divine status. At least, in the vying for power we see among the Wokies, along comes relentless violence akin to the Bolshevik/National Socialist machinations of yesteryear to which the Donkey Party increasingly resembles.

      Mike Pence has admitted that problems in the US aren’t his priority. Ramaswamy mopped the floor with him

      Who, by your estimate, is coming the closest to embodying the “Gospels of Jesus”?

      Still not a Republican, never would be–loathe the neocons. Tulsi Gabbard or RFK Jr or even Andrew Yang are preferable to Pence and Haley and Burgum and Hutchinson. But all this lawfare against #45 manages to do is reaffirm to a growing number of us that trump has the true enemy pinned down to a tee. He’s a deeply flawed man, yet by going after him and not looking at the substance of his criticisms that make him so popular, they just keep making him stronger.

  3. All but two of the candidates said, if elected, they would pardon Trump for his crimes. None of them, however, mentioned (or perhaps even knew) that for a pardon to be executed, the recipient must acknowledge his or her crimes. Trump would never do that, because he is never wrong. Therefore, I can only conclude that the candidates who would pardon Trump were only pandering to his MAGA cult followers, which at best account for less than a third of the national vote. I would much rather vote for a candidate who knows this math, and would be willing to tell those folks to go jump off a cliff.

    1. In the meantime, what are really falling off the cliff is the basic social cohesion and fundamental sense of lawfulness that characterized American cities as recently as 2019. Do you enjoy the normalization of street-defecation, or zombified people wandering into traffic, or having to get permission from a clerk at a store to unlock a plastic sheath so you can grab shampoo?

      Or are you just one of the many useful idiots that rationalizes this? Who exactly is teetering on the edge of a cliff?

    2. Some people simply are able to comprehend fundamental concepts. “Falling of a cliff” is accidental, whereas “jumping off a cliff” in intentional. I want the MAGA cult followers to purposefully jump.

  4. Lauren, your man Trump was President in 2019. He did absolutely nothing to calm racial tensions or violence when it erupted across the United States after the George Floyd murder. How do you rationalize that Trump has no blame in what happened there?

    And basic social cohesion is falling off a cliff. Social media, COVID isolation, and a dysfunctional political system have all contributed to that. You know what contributed to it the most though? A man who broke every social norm that exits in the history of the US Presidency. If you can’t see that your eyes aren’t open.

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