The First Republican Debate Starred Eight Candidates and a Ghost

Republican Debate An unusual evening on Fox News took an impassioned turn when the focus shifted to the candidate who was conspicuously absent.

While primary debates lack episode titles, if the 2024 Republican primary’s first debate had one, it might be dubbed “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

Donald J. Trump, the victor of the 2016 election who faced defeat in 2020, is now a dominant figure in the 2024 primary. Despite his commanding position, he chose to forego Wednesday’s Fox News debate, leaving him a paradoxical presence—both absent and omnipresent.

Much of the debate unfolded like a scene from an alternate reality, where Trump’s 2020 loss marked his exit from the political stage, allowing the party and Fox News to move on. Eight candidates, including governors, former officials, and an entirely different kind of businessman, engaged in heated exchanges over policy and persona. It was as though Trump had vanished from the scene.

One might assume this would provide a platform for the on-stage candidates, who often struggled to stand out even on debate day. Trump, however, decided to counter the event by being interviewed online by former Fox star Tucker Carlson. Meanwhile, his co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case were capturing cable-news attention, converging on Atlanta much like

Thanksgiving travelers.

Though Trump wasn’t physically present, his influence was tangible in the form of the thousands of Republican supporters in the live Milwaukee audience. They were poised to voice their displeasure at any hint of anti-Trump sentiment.

This created a mystifying paradox: how do you challenge an opponent without implying their defeat? The debate was dynamic, at times tumultuous, and peculiarly haunted.

Candidates on stage weren’t the only ones indirectly competing with the former president. Since Trump’s transition from a regular guest on “Fox and Friends” to a White House contender, Fox News has been contending for influence over its conservative audience.

This dynamic required some maneuvering. Prior to the debate, Fox pundits commended Trump’s strategic choice to skip the event, while the network entertained the idea that the current president might avoid participating in the general election, as indicated by the “Hiding Biden” chyron.

Much of the initial hour bypassed Trump. Moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum stirred the pot, and candidates sparred vigorously. Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur in the spotlight, became a prime target. Mike Pence labeled him a “rookie,” and Ramaswamy retorted that his rivals were “bought and paid for.”

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, known for upending Marco Rubio in 2016, entered the race with a focus on critiquing Trump’s 2020 loss challenges. Initially, he targeted Ramaswamy, comparing him to Barack Obama; Ramaswamy reminded Christie of his embrace of Obama after Hurricane Sandy.

Around an hour into the debate, Baier introduced Trump into the discussion, invoking boos from the audience. This led to a striking visual moment when moderators asked for a show of hands to gauge support for Trump as the nominee if he were convicted. The motion started with Ramaswamy and rippled across the stage, culminating at Christie.

The Trump segment brought the night’s fervor, engaging both candidates and the audience. During a point, the crowd attempted to drown out Christie, prompting Baier to intervene.

The debate’s approach to the Jan. 6 events raised concerns, showing an apologetic attitude that didn’t address the Capitol attack comprehensively. Though serious topics like climate change were covered, the handling of the Capitol attack fell short. When a party’s members challenge a democratic election, moderators should acknowledge its significance.

Despite Trump’s absence, the debate provided an opportunity for candidates to introduce themselves to a broader audience. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, expected to rival Trump, remained on the periphery, while Pence and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley displayed notable assertiveness.

In the introduction race, Ramaswamy emerged as the winner, characterized by his high energy, interruptions, and spirited demeanor. However, he simultaneously praised Trump, the very rival he aimed to defeat. It’s an unusual strategy, akin to blocking for an opponent in a football game, hoping for a mishap that could be advantageous.

For the night, Ramaswamy secured much of the audience’s support, including a CNN-convened post-debate focus group of Republicans. This unconventional approach could potentially get under the former president’s skin and lure him back to the debate stage. Sometimes, attention from others can be the trigger.

The Run-Up to the 2024 Election

The First G.O.P. Debate

  • Republicans held their first debate of the 2024 presidential cycle without the party’s dominant candidate: Donald Trump. “The Daily” looks at how the fiery debate unfolded.
  • The debate, which grew contentious at times, underscored the rifts within the Republican Party on several key issues.
  • Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur and first-time candidate, broke through with big swings and a smile.
  • A debate watch party at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library drew traditional Republicans pining for signs of a post-Trump era.

Donald Trump

  • The G.O.P. front-runner’s decision to sit out the debate and instead do a pretaped interview with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson was a tactical one.
  • Trump has berated President Biden for his son’s overseas deal making, despite plenty of overseas deal making by the Trump family.

President Biden

  • With the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden, what had been a relatively contained political scandal could now go on for months just as the president is gearing up for his re-election campaign.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris has taken on a forceful new role in the 2024 campaign, sparring with DeSantis and defending abortion rights in Iowa.

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