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Republican Presidential Candidates, Minus Trump, Spar Sharply


U.S. Republican presidential candidates sparred sharply on a host of issues Wednesday night in the first debate leading up to the 2024 national election. But some of the most spirited comments targeted the candidate who skipped the political confrontation, former President Donald Trump, the party’s leading contender.

With Trump now facing an unprecedented four criminal indictments for his actions before, during and after his single-term presidency, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pilloried him.

“Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said. “Donald Trump said it was OK to suspend the Constitution” to try to stay in power as his presidency ended in 2021.

“This conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States,” Christie said.

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson characterized Trump as “morally disqualified to be president again.”

Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, said, “The American people need to know that the president asked me to put him over the Constitution,” demanding he refuse to oversee the congressional certification that Democrat Joe Biden had defeated Trump in the 2020 election.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley contended, “We cannot win a general election with Donald Trump” as the Republican nominee.

But other Republican presidential contenders, while acknowledging Pence’s role on Jan. 6, 2021, in rejecting Trump’s demand to stop congressional certification of Biden’s victory, described the prosecution of Trump as the political weaponization of the Justice Department overseen by Biden.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared, “This election is not about Jan. 6. We’ve got to focus on your future, look forward.”

Only two of the eight candidates on the debate stage, Christie and Hutchinson, said they would not support Trump if he were convicted and still won the Republican presidential nomination.

Trump skipped the debate, calculating that he is so far ahead of his challengers that he did not need to appear on the same stage to listen as they attacked him during a two-hour face-off.

Trump now faces 91 charges in the four indictments, the first ever leveled against a former U.S. president. He says he will surrender for arrest and booking in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday in connection with the fourth indictment, which accuses him of racketeering and interference in trying to upend his 2020 reelection loss in the southern state.

However, he leads by about 40 percentage points over his closest Republican presidential challenger, DeSantis, with all the other Republican opponents getting less than 10% apiece in national polls.

In lieu of debating them, Trump released a pre-taped interview with conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson at the same time his Republican challengers were attempting to show party voters why they should be his main competitor.

With Trump’s absence, the television audience for the debate on Fox News channels could be down by millions of voters. But Biden, who is running for reelection and likely will face Trump or one of the other Republicans in the November 2024 election, told reporters, “I’m going to try to see — get as much as I can, yes.”

Asked what his expectations were, Biden smiled broadly and laughed.

“I have none,” he said.

The eight candidates on the debate stage at Fiserv Forum in the midwestern city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, broadly called for cuts in government spending, with Pence saying the federal Education Department should be dismantled.

They blamed Biden and increased government spending favored by Democrats for rising consumer prices that reached a peak of more than an annualized rate of 9% last year.

They all said they favored restrictions on U.S. abortion rights but differed on the details, such as at what gestational number of weeks it ought to be banned. Last year’s Supreme Court decision upended a nearly 50-year right to the procedure in the U.S., leaving it up to the 50 states to decide whether to allow abortions or severely restrict them.

Few of the Republican candidates have been outspoken in criticizing Trump, although Christie, once a key Trump ally, is a marked exception, as is, to a lesser degree, Hutchinson.

Others, such as DeSantis and Haley, have taken a more measured approach, hoping to convince a party base that remains loyal to Trump that they can implement the former president’s right-wing “Make America Great Again” agenda without his legal encumbrances and other controversies.

Then there is Pence, a staunch Trump supporter during their four years running the government, who defends his ceremonial certification of the 2020 election results against Trump’s wishes. He is still in the low single digits in most polls of potential Republican voters.

In addition to Pence, Christie, DeSantis, Haley and Hutchinson, others on the debate stage included technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

Trump posted on his social media platform Truth Social on Sunday that with his large polling lead and his known accomplishments during his one term as president, “I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES.”

Trump was reportedly referring to the first two debates of the primary election schedule, including next month’s face-off in California, leaving open the possibility he is willing to face Republican rivals on stage later in the campaign season.

Trump has also stated he will not sign the Republican National Committee’s “loyalty pledge,” which asks all the primary losers to eventually support the nominee, one of the requirements for participating in the Milwaukee debate.

“Surprise, surprise … the guy who is out on bail from four jurisdictions and can’t defend his reprehensible conduct, is running scared and hiding from the debate stage,” Christie posted Friday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, foreshadowing his rhetoric at the debate.

The debate may not be very consequential for Trump; he likely still will be the front-runner regardless of what happens. For the others, there could be a viral moment, good or bad, that significantly changes their polling numbers.

Ramaswamy, a political newcomer, claimed at one point, “It’s going to take an outsider” to create “a vision of what it means to be an American.”

Pence retorted, “Now is not the time for on-the-job training.”

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hold their hands over their hearts for the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance at the start of at the first Republican candidates’ debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Provost associate professor Jordan Tama of American University’s School of International Service, said, “We’ve seen from debates in past election seasons that candidates sometimes have a moment in a debate that ends up disqualifying them because they look bad. We’ve also seen moments in past debates where candidates have said something that got a lot of attention for them in a positive way and gave them a huge boost.”

DeSantis is the candidate who perhaps had the most at stake. Once touted as the party’s Trump slayer, the second-term governor has dropped in the polls. In a few surveys, the relatively unknown Ramaswamy has pulled even with or surpassed DeSantis for distant second place.

“I think DeSantis has the most to lose. Vivek Ramaswamy probably has the most to gain. There’s a lot of people coming over to him,” Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, told VOA outside the debate venue on Tuesday.

“This is his moment,” Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said of DeSantis. “Remember, in 49 other states, these people do not know the governor of Florida. They maybe have seen a little bit on the news here and there. But most of the coverage is focused on the former president. As a result, Ron DeSantis will be introducing himself to the country. And one of the things he needs to do is make a good first impression. If he doesn’t, he won’t be able to really change the dynamics of the race in a significant way.”

Source: Voa News