MILWAUKEE – Eight Republican presidential candidates faced off for the first primary debate of the 2024 election cycle Wednesday – with frontrunner Donald Trump (picture) stealing the spotlight despite spurning the showdown.
The former president’s decision to snub the two-hour Milwaukee event deprived a chasing pack of rivals, who he leads by a large margin in polling, of the opportunity to take shots at him on stage.
He instead gave an interview with former Fox News star Tucker Carlson that was posted online minutes before the debate got underway.
But Trump still loomed over the debate, with his multiple prosecutions set to be the subject of questions from the Fox News hosts moderating the event.
The former reality TV star will surrender to authorities in Atlanta on Thursday over his fourth indictment of the year, for an alleged criminal conspiracy to steal the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.
“I have bigger things to focus on than debating candidates who are polling at one percent on the night before my wrongful arrest,” Trump, 77, said in a campaign email before the debate.
“We cannot waste energy and resources, arguing with members of our own party at a time when we should be united against Crooked Joe who is burning down America.”
DeSantis under pressure
For Trump’s closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, 44, the debate was a much-needed chance to reverse flagging poll numbers and demonstrate that he is a viable alternative to the frontrunner.
“Ron DeSantis will be center-stage at the #GOPdebate because he believes in EARNING your support, rather than expecting it to be handed to him,” his campaign said in a dig at Trump.
Candidates will likely be asked about competition with China and America’s foreign policy in Ukraine and Russia – an issue that caused DeSantis to stumble early in the campaign.
With a seismic shift needed to dethrone Trump, the debate offered a showcase for candidates angling to be Trump’s running mate.
For lower profile candidates like businessman Vivek Ramaswamy the event was a chance to introduce themselves to the wider public – as well as make their case for jobs in a future Trump administration.
But analysts have argued that with more than four months until the first nomination votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is too early to call the race.
“Nobody’s caught the wave yet but somebody’s going to and when they do, Trump’s going to have a race on his hands,” former US senator Judd Gregg told political outlet The Hill.
Trump dodged a debate in Iowa in 2016, ensuring that his closest rival Ted Cruz took all the heat, and the DeSantis team is expecting a similar dynamic on Wednesday.
Trump won’t have it all his own way, though, with distant underdogs Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson both hoping for a breakout moment by skewering the former president, while his former vice president Mike Pence is unlikely to pull his punches.
“I think it’s fair when these other candidates say it’s not a coronation, it’s an election,” debate co-moderator Bret Baier said.
The Biden campaign bought expensive ad slots on Fox News and its website before the debate, while the president said he would watch as much of the event “as I can.”
Trump’s former attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is charged with racketeering in the case alongside Trump and 17 other co-defendants, surrendered in Georgia’s capital hours before the debate.
“I am very, very honored to be involved in this case, because this case is a fight for our way of life,” Giuliani told reporters outside the county jail in Atlanta. – AFP