MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Republican presidential candidates vying to be the leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump fought — sometimes bitterly — over abortion rights, U.S. support for Ukraine and the type of experience needed to manage an expansive federal government during the first debate of the 2024 campaign.
But when it came to arguably the most consequential choice facing the party, virtually everyone on the debate stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night lined up behind Trump, who declined to participate, citing his commanding lead. Most said they would support Trump as their nominee even if he is convicted in a series of cases that range from his handling of classified documents to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his role in making hush money payments to a porn actress and other women.
“Let’s just speak the truth,” said tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. “President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact.”
In the face of such an unprecedented moment in American politics, that sentiment was a reminder of the power Trump continues to wield in the party and the reluctance of most GOP White House hopefuls to directly confront him or his norm-breaking activity. And it spoke to the struggle of any single candidate in the crowded field to emerge as a credible counter to Trump with less than five months until the Iowa caucuses formally jumpstart the GOP presidential nomination process.
That challenge was particularly acute for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has since struggled to gain traction. He was sometimes eclipsed on Wednesday by lower-polling candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, a generally understated politician who demonstrated an aggressive side as he positioned himself as the most experienced candidate on stage.
Pence along with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sparred frequently with Ramaswamy. The goal for almost every candidate was to use the event, hosted by Fox News, to displace DeSantis from his distant second-place standing and introduce themselves to viewers who are just tuning into the race.
While the candidates repeatedly tangled — often talking over moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum — most refused to oppose Trump as the nominee, even if he becomes a convicted felon. The question came nearly an hour into the debate and a day before Trump is set to surrender in Georgia on charges of trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election.
The moderators appeared apologetic about even raising the issue of a potentially incarcerated nominee, saying they would spend just a “brief moment” discussing the man they called “the elephant not in the room,” which drew boos from the audience.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing misconduct. 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,” said Christie, a onetime Trump ally who has since become a fierce critic.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only person who clearly refused to raise his hand, indicating he would not support Trump as the nominee if he was convicted.
DeSantis was among those who did raise his hand. He said Pence “did his duty” on Jan. 6, 2021, when he refused to go along with Trump’s unconstitutional scheme to overturn the vote, but nonetheless pressed the hosts to move on.
“This election is not about Jan. 6, 2021. It’s about Jan. 20 of 2025 when the next president is going to take office,” he said.
For his part, Pence defended his decision not to overturn the election in Trump’s favor, a move that ended their strong partnership, saying he upheld his oath to defend the constitution.
Trump, who had long said he felt it would be foolish to participate in the debate given his dominant lead in the race, followed through with his threat to skip the Fox event in a blow to the network. Instead, Trump pre-recorded an interview with ex-Fox host Tucker Carlson that was posted to the platform formerly known as Twitter right before the debate kicked off.
“Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?” Trump said.
But even without Trump, the debate demonstrated sharp divisions within the party that he has stoked on issues including the war between Russia and Ukraine after Russia’s invasion nearly 18-months ago. Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy said they opposed more funding to Ukraine, arguing the money should be spent securing the U.S. border against drug and human trafficking.
“As president of the United States, your first obligation is to defend our country and its people,” DeSantis said.
Ramaswamy compared support for Ukraine to the ill-fated U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Vietnam.
Christie, Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley cast support for Ukraine as a moral obligation and a national security imperative, warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue his aggression if he succeeds in Ukraine, potentially threatening U.S. allies.
“Anybody who thinks we can’t solve problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a small view of the greatest nation on earth,” Pence said.
The candidates also tangled on abortion, underscoring the party’s challenges on the issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. All of the candidates identified as “pro-life,” but they differed on when restrictions should kick in after the court ended the constitutional right to an abortion, leading to a wave of restrictions in Republican-led states.
DeSantis refused again to say whether he supports a federal ban.
“I’m going to stand on the side of life. Look, I understand Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire are going to be different, but I will support the cause of life as governor and as president,” he said.
Haley, who has said she would “absolutely” sign a 15-week federal ban, argued for consensus, saying that barring the procedure nationwide would be highly unlikely without more Republicans in Congress.
“Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” rebutted Pence, who has made his opposition to abortion rights a central tenet of his campaign. Pence supports a federal ban on abortion at six weeks, before many women even know they’re pregnant, and has called on the field to back a 15-week national ban as a minimum.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott also countered those who argued the issue should be left to the states. “We cannot let states like California, New York, Illinois have abortions on demand up until the day of birth. That is immoral, it is unethical, it is wrong,” he said.
While DeSantis had expected to be the top target as the front-runner on the stage, the candidates focused many of their attacks on Ramaswamy, who has been rising in the polls and espouses many of Trump’s positions.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in people without experience,” quipped Pence.
Christie also laced into Ramaswamy.
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” he said, referencing the artificial intelligence chat program, and calling him an “amateur.”
“Give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” Ramaswamy shot back — a reference to Christie’s embrace of the former president after a storm ravaged his state.
Haley, the only woman on stage in a sea of men wearing red ties, tried to rise above the fray.
“I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ’If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” she said.
___ Colvin reported from Washington and Cooper from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Michelle Price in New York contributed to this report.