Eight underdog Republican presidential candidates debated Wednesday on a podium overshadowed by Donald Trump, who snubbed his rivals in an attempt to demonstrate his dominance — and condemn them to irrelevance.
While some focused on Trump, his closest rivals defended him or carefully sidestepped the former president as he faced four criminal charges over his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election, misuse of classified documents and forgery of business. data to make hush money payments. to a porn star.
There was little reason to believe that the debate would shake the fundamental dynamic of the Republican primary: Trump’s dominance. Heading into the evening, he won 52% of Republican voters in the national polls, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. His closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, trailed far behind, with 15%. No one else made double digits.
Here are some key takeaways from the evening.
Rivals defend Trump or pull their fists
Before the debate, Trump’s super PAC mocked it as an audition to become Trump’s vice presidential running mate.
On stage, some of them seemed to reinforce his story.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a distant third, effusively defended Trump throughout the evening. He later promised to pardon Trump if convicted and demanded that former Vice President Mike Pence make a similar pledge, which Pence refused to do.
DeSantis defended Trump less, but did his best and tried to proceed with caution, echoing Trump’s claims of “arming the Justice Department.” When asked if Pence did the right thing by certifying Joe Biden’s election victory on January 6, 2021, he sidestepped. When pressed, he said that ‘Mike has done his duty; I have no problem with him,” before turning back.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — an aggressive Trump critic who is far behind the polls — was an exception. He attacked Trump, saying his “conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States,” citing Trump’s calls to end parts of the Constitution over his election loss. “We must dispense with the person who said we should suspend the Constitution to advance his political career.”
And he was booed for criticizing Trump.
Former U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley tried to make a case for eligibility, arguing that Republicans “cannot win a general election” by nominating a candidate as unpopular as Trump.
Ramaswamy kept getting into fights
It wasn’t DeSantis, the highest scoring contender on the podium, who faced the most attacks. To the pleasant surprise of some DeSantis allies, that award went to Ramaswamy, the political novice, whose sharp-elbow posture drew fire.
An advisor to DeSantis said in a text message, “I don’t agree with their strategy, but appreciate it :)” and added that they were glad he “didn’t get caught up in the infighting.”
According to the NBC News assault tracker, Ramaswamy was attacked 11 times, while DeSantis was attacked twice.
Christie labeled Ramaswamy early on as an “amateur” and “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” Others joined in.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” Pence said in one of the many clashes the two had. Pence’s impatience with Ramaswamy was apparent throughout the evening as he repeatedly interrupted him and later in the evening called him to account for his willingness to fulfill some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives in his war against Ukraine.
Haley, a fellow Indian American, raised her voice in a heated clash with Ramaswamy after he accused her of pandering to defense firms by supporting Ukraine.
“You’re choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” she said. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows. It shows!”
Ramaswamy did not shy away from the fighting and reacted sharply. Presenting himself as a fresh outsider, he stuck to short, snappy answers throughout the debate, saying the US is in “a dark moment” and a “cold cultural civil war.”
Trump drama and global news are ramping up the debate
The debate was disrupted by the absence of Trump — who skipped for a taped interview with departed Fox News host Tucker Carlson, released five minutes before the debate began — and his unfolding legal drama in Georgia. Trump heavily promoted the interview, predicting it would attract more viewers than the debate on Fox News.
Also on Wednesday, the country witnessed the posting and release of mesmerizing police photos of some of Trump’s alleged co-conspirators — Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell — in the plot to steal Georgia’s 2020 election. Trump is expected to surrender to authorities in Atlanta on Thursday.
The preceding hours also brought news of a plane crash in which one passenger was reportedly Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led an aborted coup attempt against Putin’s regime in June, according to Russian state media. And vying for a piece of national attention Wednesday: India became the first country to reach the south pole of the moon. It was a cascade of events in the preceding hours that couldn’t have been more timed for the contenders hoping to capture the nation’s attention.
Several Republicans defend the Pence on January 6
Some Republican candidates were asked if Pence did the right thing by announcing the election results on January 6, 2021, despite demands Trump received from Trump to block the election vote count.
It’s a topic that many Republicans typically prefer to avoid, given the pro-Trump sentiment within their voter base. But when pressed, it became clear that many are sympathetic to Pence.
“Absolutely, he did the right thing,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who spent the evening trying to be positive with Republicans and avoid clashes or criticism of his rivals.
“I really think Mike Pence did the right thing,” she said.
Christie was more emphatic: “Mike Pence stood for the Constitution, and he doesn’t grudgingly deserve credit. He deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office first.”
North Dakota governor Doug Burgum also said Pence did the right thing.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson took it a step further, pointing to the arguments of some legal experts who say Trump could even be “disqualified under the 14th Amendment from running for president again as a result of the insurgency.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com