Trump's absence didn't dominate Republican debate, but it still showed his lasting influence: ANALYSIS
You could see it in almost every area of disagreement between the candidates.
MILWAUKEE -- Republicans didn't need Donald Trump to have a debate where they called each other names.
They may need Trump on the stage to engage with the front-runner in a meaningful way. But the first debate of the cycle -- which Trump declined to participate in, citing his huge polling lead -- showcased both the challenges to the GOP's identity and future path and how eager so many candidates are to deliver voters what they're looking for in a party that's changed so extensively over the last decade.
Tense exchanges about Trump and his legal challenges (he denies any wrongdoing) brought some of the party's divisions to the forefront. So did arguments over areas like abortion rights and energy policy, where most of the field agrees -- and areas like Russia's invasion of Ukraine, where they most decidedly do not.
The debate's center of gravity actually wasn't Trump or his closest polling rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as much as it was political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy, a businessman and commentator, offered the most strident defenses of Trump and by far the most stinging critiques of all of the others on the stage.
He started the night by calling his rivals "super PAC puppets" and repeated a call for a "revolution" in thinking that he said would bring dramatic changes to the U.S. approach to domestic and foreign policy -- very much in the mold of Trump, whom he praised repeatedly on stage.
That made for some odd, ad hoc alliances on stage, with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saying Ramaswamy "sounds like ChatGPT" -- a reference to the popular artificial intelligence tool -- and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley saying flatly, "You have no foreign policy experience and it shows."
Former Vice President Mike Pence also targeted Ramaswamy's lack of experience, saying he was "choosing a murderer over a pro-American country" by vowing to cut off aid to Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia, led by Vladimir Putin. And Ramaswamy's embrace of Trump, along with his vow to pardon Trump if elected president, brought some of the night's most barbed exchanges, along with a rallying behind Pence that the former president seized.
Christie called out Ramaswamy and Trump but himself was booed by the audience -- another reminder of how the party's base remains largely in the former president's camp.
"Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct," Christie said. "Booing is allowed, but it doesn't change the truth."
Both Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that, despite their signed "pledges" to support the GOP nominee no matter who it is, they would not back Trump if he is convicted of serious crimes. He is under four indictments and has pleaded not guilty.
Christie and Hutchinson were among several candidates to applaud Pence for his decision to certify the 2020 presidential election results on Jan. 6, 2021, defying Trump.
DeSantis only grudgingly backed Pence on that decision, saying after several followups, "Mike did his duty, I've got no beef with him." He expressed concern that Republicans would be looking backward when voters want a vision that takes them forward.
"This election is not about Jan. 6 of 2021. It's about Jan. 20 of 2025," DeSantis said.
Pence used the scrutiny on his decision to explain himself and build out an argument for his candidacy that's based on his experience, and not -- or not just -- his famous break with Trump.
"We don't need a president who's too old. We don't need a president who's too young," Pence said. "We need a president who's been there."
The debate showed limits to any attempts to corral freewheeling discussions. DeSantis shut down the moderators' attempt at a hand-raising moment on climate change by saying directly, "we're not school children." Later, he reluctantly but eventually raised his hand when asked if he would still support Trump if he was convicted.
Both candidates from South Carolina, Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, chided their rivals for the name-calling contest.
"This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, 'If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,'" Haley said early in the debate.
"Going back and forth, being childish, is not helpful to the American people," said Scott.
But back and forth they went, especially when Trump and the charges against him were injected into the conversation. Haley urged Republicans to look beyond Trump -- and be clear about how hard it will be for him to win back the White House.
"Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can't win a general election that way," Haley said.
Trump wasn't as big a focus of the debate as he might have been, or that he surely would have been if he had attended. But his influence on the party was evident in almost every area of disagreement, even many where the candidates broadly see eye to eye.
Multiple campaigns saw the first debate as an introductory moment for candidates who are largely talking to a country that's not yet dialed into the race. That animated the stay-positive approach of hopefuls including Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Still, the debate played out less as a moment to meet new candidates than for the GOP to reacquaint itself with its own voters. That goal remains a moving target, with the party's identity still dominated by Trump, whether he comes to debates or not.
Campaigns are sometimes described as attempts to find "lanes" by specific candidates. This time around, those lanes are still shifting, with disruptive forces forcing the candidates to make educated guesses about how voters will respond.