Over the course of two hours at the first GOP presidential debate on Wednesday night, punches flew in every direction—just hardly up.
Ramaswamy went after everyone, declaring he was the only candidate onstage “not bought and paid for.” But he showed particular ire for Chris Christie.
Christie paid back the favor, showing particular ire for Ramaswamy.
Nikki Haley went after all the men onstage—which is to say, everyone else.
But the one candidate who only took glancing blows—even when the moderators set up the discussion to focus on him—was the one who the eight Republicans onstage most desperately need to take down: Donald Trump.
With the former president—who is the clear frontrunner for the 2024 nomination—choosing to skip the debate, pundits and operatives wondered whether his challengers would make any kind of case against him even as they attacked their competitors standing beside them.
By the time the two hour debate had concluded, Trump’s decision to skip the debate looked prescient. No candidate landed a blow on the former president that he hadn’t already shrugged off, and no one achieved a truly viral moment that would turn their own fortunes upside down.
Any potential the debate had to shift the dynamic of the race and clarify the muddled pack of Trump challengers seemed to decrease the longer it went on. And the candidates’ strenuous efforts to avoid criticizing Trump at all on Wednesday night only solidified one of the dominant dynamics of the primary.
Even when the moderators teed up the candidates to go after Trump about an hour into the debate—by bringing up his imminent arraignment on criminal charges in Atlanta—only Christie would tepidly make the case that Republicans shouldn't nominate Trump in 2024.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said. “Whether or not you believe the charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the President of the United States.”
The former New Jersey governor was quickly interrupted by Ramaswamy, who eagerly defended Trump. And then Christie went back to attacking Ramaswamy.
When the moderators pointedly asked if the candidates believed Pence had done anything wrong by refusing to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis only reluctantly agreed Pence was in the right. “Mike did his duty,” he said. “I got no beef with him.”
Pence ended that segment on his Jan. 6 actions with the kind of careful criticism of his former boss that has typified his presidential bid. “He asked me to put him over the Constitution,” Pence said of Trump. “I chose the Constitution and I always will.”
Trump wasn’t entirely ignored by the other candidates. Haley—who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations—lobbed some of the first and harshest criticisms at Trump.
At one point, Haley questioned the Trump administration’s budget-busting spending. At another, she flatly declared, “Trump is the most disliked politician in America.”
Given the course of the GOP primary so far—with only a few candidates venturing any kind of criticism of the former president—their silence in Milwaukee was notable but unsurprising.
Candidates like Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and DeSantis clearly tried their best to avoid attacking Trump. But that's perhaps less surprising given Trump's legal troubles and the belief from some GOP candidates that Trump won't be the nominee based on the court cases that could take him down.
What was more surprising was the figure who emerged as the early top target of the bulk of attacks on the debate stage. Going into the debate, it was expected that everyone would want to land their punches on DeSantis, the polling leader in the non-Trump field who nevertheless needs a strong debate performance to keep his struggling campaign going.
Instead, DeSantis largely faded into the background in the early going—with Ramaswamy loudly and gleefully soaking up the venom from his rivals.
An “anti-woke” entrepreneur who entered the presidential race this year as a total unknown, Ramaswamy introduced himself the exact way Barack Obama famously did in his 2004 Democratic convention speech: a “skinny guy” with a “funny name.”
Christie—who likened Ramaswamy to the AI tool ChatGPT— was quick to call out his use of Obama’s speech.
“I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same kind of amateur,” he quipped.
Trump wasn’t entirely spared in the first hour. Haley did point out that Trump added about $8 trillion to the national debt during his four years in office, and the moderators followed up that fact by noting to Pence that almost half of that debt was added before COVID-19 ever made its way to the United States.
When the candidates were asked onstage if they would support Trump for president, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only one to definitively not raise his hand. (Christie did late, but seemed to suggest it was because he wanted to say something.)
Regardless, Hutchinson took boos from the crowd when he clarified why he wouldn't support the former president even if he were the Republican nominee.
“Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being president again. as a result of what happened on January 6,” Hutchinson said.