'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (2023)

In a race dominated by Donald Trump, eight other presidential contenders battled it out at the first Republican primary debate Wednesday in an uphill fight to stop the former president from running away with the nomination.

Trump's absence overshadowed the debate in Milwaukee but gave his challengers a prime opportunity to seize the spotlight and emerge as the leading alternative.

Yet even as the front-runner enjoys a massive polling lead, most candidates only sparingly threw punches his way, instead lobbing most of their attacks at one another, President Joe Biden, his policy agenda and his son Hunter.

Here are five takeaways from the debate.

Republicans dance around Trump

'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (1)

Throughout the two-hour discussion, the Republican field struggled to make a clear argument against Trump, who polls show leading his next-closest counterpart, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in national polls by about 40 percentage points.

DeSantis took no swings at Trump, spending more time railing on Biden's son Hunter Biden and liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros while characterizing the U.S. as a country that has lost its way.

"We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline," DeSantis said.

There were some exceptions. Former Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, as expected, took shots at Trump over his legal woes and personal behavior. But the sharpest case against Trump arguably came from Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration.

During the first hour of debate, Haley was the only candidate to create a policy distinction with Trump, saying "our kids are never going to forgive us" for $8 trillion in new debt during the Trump administration.

'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (2)

Then Haley made a point that others seemed unwilling to articulate: that Trump is too polarizing to win another general election.

"It is time for a new generational conservative leader," she said. "We have to look at the fact that three-quarters of Americans don't want a rematch between Trump and Biden. And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can't win a general election that way."

Trump indictments: Most pledge support in 2024 even if he is convicted

Fox News debate moderator Bret Baier called Trump "the elephant not in the room."

The former president's quadruple indictments came up about an hour into the discussion and created one of the most contrasting moments for voters to measure in Wednesday’s debate.

Asked whether they would still back Trump as the GOP nominee in the general election if he were convicted, most of the eight contenders on stage raised their hand. Exceptions were Hutchinson, who kept his hand down, and Christie, who raised his hand halfway but seemingly to speak on the subject.

"Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct, OK?" Christie said. "Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States."

Christie was met with loud boos from the crowd of Republican partisans.

'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (3)

"This is the great thing about this country," he said. "Booing is allowed, but it doesn't change the truth."

Those remarks prompted a response from Vivek Ramaswamy, who has given the most full-throated support for Trump on the campaign trail of any of the candidates, and called him "the best president of the 21st century."

"Your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against Donald Trump," Ramaswamy said.

Republican candidates were then asked whether former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing when he opposed Trump's plan to overturn the 2020 election results by certifying Biden's victory on Jan. 6, 2021.

"Absolutely, he did the right thing," Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C, told the audience. "But we should be asking ourselves a bigger question about the weaponization of the Department of Justice. When I'm president, the first thing I'll do is fire (Attorney General) Merrick Garland."

When the question turned to DeSantis, the Florida governor seemed reluctant to answer directly, saying Democrats want to keep that topic going and Republicans need to turn the page.

But the former vice president pressed for a response.

"I think the American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day," Pence said. "There's no more important duty, so answer the question."

"I've answered this before. Mike did his duty, I've got no beef with him," DeSantis finally said.

Ramaswamy's coming-out party met with GOP fire

'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (4)

Ramaswamy drew fire from multiple rivals as he sought to use the debate as a coming-out-party on the national stage after gaining traction in recent polls.

"First, let me just address a question that is on everybody's mind at home tonight," Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old billionaire businessman, said in his opening remarks. "Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?"

The Ohio Republican − who spoke out of turn frequently throughout the night − took no time irking his opponents.

Pence was the first to take a swipe at Ramaswamy: "Joe Biden has weakened this country at home and abroad. Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don't need to bring in a rookie."

Christie also reminded the audience that the last politician to stand on a stage and say he's a skinny guy with a funny name was former President Barack Obama. "I'm afraid we're dealing with the same type of amateur," Christie said.

As he angered his foes, Ramaswamy doubled down on his hard-line conservative pitch.

"Do you want a super PAC puppet or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth?" he said. "Do you want incremental change or do you want revolution?"

Republicans vary on national abortion ban

Biden and Democrats have made clear they plan to thrust abortion rights at the center of the president's 2024 reelection bid.

In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court ended Roe v. Wade, six states have addressed reproductive rights questions and the liberal side has won each of those ballot questions.

Asked about where they stand in terms of a national standard, each of the Republican presidential candidates said they were “pro-life,” but that meant something different with each answer.

Haley, the only woman running, said the GOP should be trying to find a consensus because any federal legislation needs 60 votes in the Senate. She said that means leaning into banning later-term abortions and agreeing not to jail women who get them.

But Pence, who is well liked among evangelical voters demanding a national ban, cast abortion as a “moral issue.” He scolded Haley, saying that “consensus is the opposite of leadership.”

'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (5)

Scott, like most on stage, said Congress should aim for a 15-week ban at least. When pressed on the question, DeSantis talked up signing a six-week ban in Florida while sharing his personal reasons for opposing abortion.

Christie said that he doesn't support a federal prohibition and that it should be left up to the states.

Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz, in a statement released during the debate, said: "Americans have rejected the extreme, anti-choice positions of MAGA Republicans in the midterms and in elections throughout this year. They will again in 2024."

Candidates fight over additional aid for Ukraine

Republicans sparred over U.S. aid for Ukraine a year and a half after Russia's invasion, reflecting the declining support for Ukrainian military aid among the Republican base.

“The reality is today Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy said, arguing that China poses a bigger threat to the U.S. "We have to have the interests of Americans first."

DeSantis said continued support should be contingent on greater support from European counties.

"I will have Europe pull their weight. Right now, they're not doing it," DeSantis said.

Haley and Pence took the more traditional Republican view on foreign policy, voicing support for maintaining financial aid for Ukraine to fight Russian forces.

Haley ripped DeSantis for having downplayed Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a "border dispute" and hit Ramaswamy for saying the U.S. should cede eastern Ukraine to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump (6)

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said.

Pence told Ramaswamy that “if we do the giveaway that you want to do to” and give Putin eastern Ukraine, “it's not going to be too long” before Russia rolls across the border into a NATO nation.

Later, while discussing Ukraine, DeSantis shifted to a more popular topic among Republican voters: migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I'm not going to send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to our southern border," DeSantis said.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Phillip M. Bailey at @phillipmbailey


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