It was not until the Republican presidential debate entered its second hour that Fox News anchor Bret Baier addressed “the elephant not in this room” — the indictments of no-show Donald Trump.
“If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?”
When six of the eight candidates raised their hands — some with more hesitation than the others — it was undoubtedly one of the standout moments of the initial 2024 event.
No other question like that has ever been asked at a presidential debate because no contender, much less the front runner, has faced such an avalanche of criminal allegations. Surprising as it is that so many still pledged to support him, even though Trump hasn’t even signed a pledge to support them, speaks to the hold that he has on the party.
The reason why was quickly apparent when Chris Christie, who along with Asa Hutchinson was the only person to decline to back a convicted Trump, drew boos as he said, “Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct,” while also noting that the GOP front runner has talked of suspending the Constitution.
That said, only one part of the debate was focused on Trump’s legal troubles, and the reluctance of some of the candidates to even talk about it showed. Tim Scott in particular blamed it on Joe Biden, accusing his administration of weaponizing the Justice Department. Scott’s focus on “weaponization,” an accusation made without evidence, avoids addressing the allegations against Trump.
It underscores how, with the former president snubbing the proceedings, Fox News and moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum sought to spotlight the eight candidates as Trump alternatives, querying them with a potpourri of traditional Republican issues like the debt and national security. But those longtime conservative talking points couldn’t escape the influence of Trump, who ran up the national debt and has defended Vladimir Putin.
Here’s a rundown of the top five standout moments of the night.
The lack of attack on Donald Trump. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson did go after the former president as a disqualified to return to the Oval Office, but most of the other candidates pulled their punches or complained about having to talk about the issue at all. Vice President Mike Pence touted his decision to choose the Constitution over Trump when pressured to block the electoral vote count on January 6th, but he still raised his hand to back him if he is the nominee. Nikki Haley chided Trump for adding “8 trillion to our debt and our kids are never going to forgive us for this,” but she, too, raised her hand. The strategy seems to be to emerge as the Trump alternative, rather than to try to land a blow on the front runner, who was 40 points ahead in a recent poll. Even more amazingly, Trump was hardly penalized for not showing up to the event, and it’s doubtful that he will be at the next debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley on Sept. 27.
Target Vivek Ramaswamy. Pence and Christie came prepared with barbs aimed at Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old former pharmaceutical executive who has been rising in the polls, in part because he has appealed as a kind of Trump-y Trump alternative. In the debate, he tried to project a certain kind of Glick-like brashness, something that his rivals clearly found grating. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley told him at one point, during extended confrontation with Ramaswamy over his refusal to support continued funding for Ukraine.
Raised hands. The candidates hate it, but some of the most telling parts of the debate were when Baier and MacCallum asked for a show of hands on various topics. That included not just over whether they would support a convicted Trump, but on whether they believe human-caused climate change is real. For the latter, no candidates raised their hands, and Ramaswamy called it a hoax. Then the audience booed him, which is perhaps a sign that the issue will become more of a liability for the party, which has resisted government efforts to address it. In fact, that was the reason for the question, as a member of the Young America’s Foundation reminded the candidates that polls showed it was the No. 1 issue of young people yet fear that the GOP doesn’t care. The candidates never really answered, and deserved a more extensive follow up, certainly in future debates.
Mike Pence. The former vice president has been given little chance in his presidential bid, but he did come prepared, as the first candidate to deploy a debate strategy of taking on the upstart Ramaswamy. He had several standout moments while other candidates, like Ron DeSantis, had a rather unmemorable evening. Pence’s campaign is heavy on his faith and fiscal conservatism, but he also was given an extended chance to explain his decision to resist Trump on January 6th, unpopular as it seems to be with the party rank and file. “He asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution,” he said. It put some of the other candidates in a bit of a bind — supporting what Pence did, but without criticizing Trump. Ramaswamy tried to challenge Pence to commit to pardoning Trump, but Pence reminded him that such a move “usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that has been convicted.”
The Boos. This was a fairly raucous debate, given the willingness of the candidates to engage and even talk over each other. And the moderators at times struggled to keep the focus on the questions at hand, or to keep the audience from extensive boos. That happened to Christie as he had an exchange over Trump with Ramaswamy. Baier then turned around and told the crowd, “Listen, the more time we spend doing this, the less time they can talk about issues you want to talk about. So, let’s just get through this section.”