While Trump, who snubbed the event, was not in attendance, the candidates were asked if they would support him if he was the nominee
Republican presidential candidates attempted to woo conservative voters — and grab some of the spotlight from former president Donald Trump — at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, which aired on Fox News.
Trump himself was not in attendance, having announced days earlier he planned to skip the debate. Instead, he gave an interview to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who published it on X, the former social network known as Twitter.
Despite his absence, he was still a major topic of discussion among the other candidates on stage, who included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Senator Tim Scott, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Early in the debate, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee, even if he was convicted of a crime. All raised their hands, except for Hutchinson, 72. Christie, 60, later clarified that he would not support Trump.
"Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct," Christie said. "Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States."
During the debate, DeSantis, 44, criticized Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at the federal level, saying a "mistake" was made by "locking down this economy."
"It should have never happened, and in Florida, we led the country out of lockdown. We kept our state free and open. And I can tell you this, as your president, I will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down," DeSantis said, adding that he would have fired Dr. Anthony Fauci if he was president at the time.
Later, DeSantis said he would not send troops to Ukraine, but instead to the U.S.-Mexico border. He also refused to say if he supported a federal ban on abortion, although he joined the other candidates in identifying himself as "pro-life."
"I’m going to stand on the side of life," the Florida governor said, per NPR. "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."
Rather than attack his Republican rivals, DeSantis focused largely on President Joe Biden, falling in line with a mockup of his debate strategy released by the campaign team days earlier.
According to the memo, which was obtained by CNN, DeSantis planned during the debate "to lay out his vision to beat Biden, reverse American decline, and revive the American Dream.”
Another debate strategy memo, released by one of DeSantis' PACs, had suggested he should defend Trump himself, who is his biggest obstacle to taking the Republican nomination ahead of the 2024 election and who has directly attacked him in recent months.
But DeSantis distanced himself from that memo days ahead of the debate, saying he hadn't read it. Still, the Florida governor stopped short of overtly criticizing Trump, who has been indicted four times in recent months and is mired in a number of other legal issues.
Trump had indicated in recent weeks that he wasn't sure whether or not he would attend the first Republican debate of election season. But in a post on his social media site Truth Social over the weekend, the former president confirmed that he would not, saying he was leading in recent polls by "legendary" numbers and adding, "I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!"
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Even on the heels of his four historic indictments, Trump's support has not waned, with polls showing the former president sitting about 40 points ahead of the rest of the Republican candidates.
DeSantis, now situated in a distant second place, was once seen as a strong challenger to the former president, though he has struggled to get the support he expected since launching his campaign.
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