The first clash of hopeful Republican presidential nominees took place without Trump. But most of the eight candidates have said they would back the former US president even if he was convicted of any of the 91 charges he's currently facing.
The Republican presidential candidates vying to be the leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump fought – sometimes bitterly – over abortion rights, US 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 Governor Ron DeSantis, who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has since struggled to gain traction.
DeSantis 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.
While the candidates repeatedly squabbled with one another, most refused to oppose Trump as the nominee, even if he became 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.
Former Arkansas Governor 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.
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 in Ukraine.
Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy said they opposed more funding to Ukraine, arguing the money should be spent securing the US border against drug and human trafficking.