With Trump absent, Republican rivals trade attacks at first 2024 debate

By Nathan Layne and Joseph Ax

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) -Eight Republican presidential candidates traded barbs on Wednesday at their first debate of the 2024 election as they jockeyed for position behind the absent front-runner, Donald Trump, who derided the event in a pre-taped interview aimed at siphoning away viewers.

The raucous two-hour debate offered a view of the deep challenges the contenders face in seeking to dislodge Trump from his perch at the top of the field.

While the former president took the extraordinary step of skipping the debate entirely, his rivals were left taking shots at one another to try to emerge as the most viable alternative, five months before the first Republican presidential nominating contest in Iowa and more than 14 months before the election.

While Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has consistently stood in second place in polls, albeit well behind Trump, it was Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur and political neophyte, who was at the center of many of the Fox News debate's most dramatic moments.

Ramaswamy, a fierce Trump defender who is rising in national polls, faced plenty of incoming fire from his more experienced rivals, who appeared to view him as more of a threat than DeSantis.

"We don't need to bring in a rookie," former Vice President Mike Pence said, while former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accused Ramaswamy of sounding "like ChatGPT," a reference to artificial intelligence.

Ramaswamy fired back by emphasizing his status as an outsider, calling everyone else on stage "bought and paid for" and accusing DeSantis of being a "super PAC puppet," a reference to independent political action committees that typically raise unlimited sums of money from corporations and individuals.

He also took the most isolationist position on the Ukraine-Russia war, arguing that it was not a priority for the U.S. and saying he would end military aid to Ukraine. That drew a sharp rebuke from Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations.

The debate had been seen as a potentially pivotal moment for DeSantis, whose campaign has been riven by staff turmoil amid a slow but steady decline in the polls.

Trump, who remains the clear-cut favorite among Republican voters despite his four criminal indictments, chose to skip the event in favor of a friendly interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson that began streaming online minutes before the debate began. The interview had about 74 million views on X, formerly known as Twitter, during its 46 minutes.

Trump declined to directly answer provocative questions posed by Carlson, such as whether a civil war was coming in the United States. Instead, he stuck to well-worn themes: false claims that he won the 2020 election, a promise to tighten immigration controls and insults of President Joe Biden and some of his Republican rivals.

"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 and a network that isn't particularly friendly to me?" he asked Carlson.

The debate took place a day before Trump planned to surrender in Atlanta to face charges he sought to overturn his election loss in the state.

Six of the eight debaters on Wednesday raised their hands when asked whether they would support Trump as the nominee even if he had been convicted of a crime - North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, DeSantis, Haley, Pence, Ramaswamy and U.S. Senator Tim Scott.

Christie, who appeared to start raising his hand before wagging his finger, and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson declined. Both have been vocal critics of Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.

"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," Christie said to boos from a rowdy and partisan crowd.

That led to a sharp back-and-forth between Christie, Trump's biggest critic among Republican candidates, and Ramaswamy, Trump's most ardent defender.

"Honest to God, your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against one man," Ramaswamy said, prompting Christie to retort, "You make me laugh."

Polls show that most Republicans view the criminal charges against Trump, 77, as politically motivated, making the topic a tricky one to navigate for his rivals.

In the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month, Trump held 47% of the Republican vote nationally, with DeSantis dropping six percentage points from July to 13%. None of the other candidates has broken out of single digits.


The candidates also went after Biden, a Democrat, from the outset. Moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, both Fox News hosts, started the debate by asking about the U.S. economy.

"Our country is in decline," DeSantis said. "We must reverse Bidenomics so that middle-class families have a chance to succeed again."

While the economy has shown surprising resilience, defying recession predictions with a robust labor market, polls show many voters - including a plurality of those who supported Biden in 2020 - feel the economy has worsened during his first three years in office amid persistent inflation.

The candidates were also asked about abortion, an issue that has bedeviled Republicans ever since the U.S. Supreme Court last year eliminated a nationwide right to abortion.

Pence, the staunchest anti-abortion opponent in the field, criticized Haley for saying that a bipartisan consensus must be reached on a federal approach.

Haley, who would be the first woman to win the Republican presidential nomination, responded that it was impractical to back nationwide limits given Democratic opposition.

DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban into law in Florida, did not specify whether he would back a similar national ban, saying he understood that different states would take different stances.

"Look, I understand, Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas," he said. "But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president."

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Jasper Ward, Costas Pitas, Andy Sullivan, Gram Slattery, Alexandra Ulmer, Rami Ayyub, Kanishka Singh, Susan Heavey and Andrea Shalal; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)