The Republican candidates for president met on Wednesday night in Milwaukee for the first debate of the presidential primary season.
Absent from the stage were several candidates who failed to make the party’s cutoff requirements as reflected in donations and polls: former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and conservative talk show host Larry Elder, among others.
Also absent from the stage and maybe worth mentioning: former President Donald Trump, who decided to skip the affair and conduct an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who now hosts a show on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.
The front-runner’s absence was strategic, meant to delegitimize the debate. And it appeared to work. “This is all the undercard right now,” former Trump pollster and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News after the debate was through.
On Thursday, Trump is expected to turn himself in at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta; he is facing a trial there and in New York, as well as two more indictments from special counsel Jack Smith that could keep him in the spotlight for months on end.
Still, the candidates did their best to stand out on Wednesday night.
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Ramaswamy becomes center of attack
In recent weeks, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has emerged as an intriguing candidate for conservatives who want to move past Trump but are increasingly uncertain that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, long seen as the successor in waiting, is equal to the hype that preceded him.
Ramaswamy began the debate with a broad smile on his face. His competitors did their best to wipe it away.
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an expert in leveling rivals during debates. For much of the night, he was focused on Ramaswamy, a wealthy Harvard graduate.
Ramaswamy was the youngest candidate on the stage, a potential advantage that others sought to turn into a liability. “Now is not the time for on the job training,” said former Vice President Mike Pence, who touted his own expertise.
The attacks on him may be a sign that other campaigns see him as a rising threat.
“He absolutely dominated tonight’s debate,” Fox News host Steve Hilton said.
Read more from Yahoo News: Vivek Ramaswamy is the star of the GOP's presidential amateur hour, via Los Angeles Times
DeSantis fails to break out
Wednesday night was not a disaster for DeSantis, who is not known as a strong debater. But he also failed to rise above the rest of the field, undermining the central argument of his campaign.
On issues like abortion and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, DeSantis provided sometimes unclear, evasive answers. Pence, Ramaswamy and Christie all spoke more than he did. And when DeSantis did speak, he recited familiar lines from his stump speech.
For a candidate who desperately needed to show donors and voters that he isn’t 2024’s version of Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, Wednesday’s solid performance may not have been enough.
“I don’t think Ron DeSantis did anything to stop that decline,” Hilton said on Fox News.
Read more from Yahoo News: Poll: DeSantis’s support collapses ahead of 1st GOP debate
All about Trump
Trump spent weeks publicly deliberating whether to attend the debate before finally deciding to skip it, reasoning that he was so far ahead of the rest of the field, there was no need to engage.
“One of these candidates may wind up as VP,” said Fox News host Jesse Watters, a sign of how the conservative media were viewing the debate.
There were moments of principle and passion from Pence, Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. DeSantis got in his digs at Hunter Biden. Christie did his hard-charging, blunt-talking New Jersey thing.
What none of them did, however, was to convince the millions of people who want to vote for Trump again that they should not do so.
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