Trump stays away from the debate — and comes out unscathed

Eight underdog Republican presidential candidates debated Wednesday on a stage overshadowed by Donald Trump, who snubbed his rivals in an attempt to show his dominance — and consign them to irrelevancy.

While some took aim at Trump, his nearest rivals either defended him or trod cautiously around the former president as he faces four criminal indictments involving his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election, misuse of classified documents and falsification of business records to make hush money payments to a porn star.

There was little reason to believe the debate would shake up the fundamental dynamic of the Republican primary campaign: Trump’s dominance. Heading into the evening, he was winning 52% of GOP voters in national polls, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. His top-polling rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was far behind, with 15%. Nobody else reached double digits.

Here are some key takeaways from the evening.

Rivals defend Trump or pull their punches

Ahead of the debate, Trump’s super PAC mocked it as an audition to be Trump’s vice presidential running mate.

Onstage, some of them seemed to bolster his narrative.

Vivek Ramaswamy, polling a distant third, effusively defended Trump throughout the evening. He later promised to pardon Trump if he were to be convicted and demanded that former Vice President Mike Pence make a similar promise, which Pence refused to do.

DeSantis was less defensive of Trump but pulled his punches and sought to tread carefully, echoing Trump’s claims about “weaponization of the Department of Justice.” Asked whether Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, by certifying Joe Biden’s election victory, he sidestepped. When he was pressed, he said that “Mike did his duty; I got no beef with him,” before he pivoted again.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — an aggressive Trump critic who is polling far behind rivals — was an exception. He lit into Trump, saying his “conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” citing Trump’s calls to terminate parts of the Constitution because of his election loss. “We have to dispense with the person who said we have to suspend the Constitution to put forward his political career.”

And he was booed for criticizing Trump.

Former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley sought to make a case about electability, arguing that Republicans “can’t win a general election” by nominating a candidate as unpopular as Trump.

Ramaswamy kept getting in fights

It wasn’t DeSantis, the highest-polling candidate on stage, who faced the most attacks. To the pleasant surprise of some DeSantis allies, that distinction went to Ramaswamy, the political novice, whose sharp-elbowed attitude drew fire.

A DeSantis adviser said in a text message that “I disagree with their strategy but appreciate it :)” and added that they were happy he “didn’t get caught up in the infighting.”

Ramaswamy was attacked 11 times, according to the NBC News attack tracker, while DeSantis was attacked twice.

Early on, Christie labeled Ramaswamy 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 several clashes the two had. Pence’s impatience with Ramaswamy was evident over the evening as he repeatedly interrupted him, taking him to task later in the evening for his willingness to accommodate some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals in his war on Ukraine.

Haley, a fellow Indian American, raised her voice in a heated clash with Ramaswamy after he accused her of pandering to defense contractors by supporting Ukraine.

“You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” she said. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows. It shows!”

Ramaswamy didn’t shrink from the battles, and he responded sharply. He presented himself as a fresh outsider and stuck to short, snappy answers throughout the debate, saying the U.S. is in “a dark moment” and a “cold cultural civil war.”

Trump drama and global news upstage the debate

The debate was upstaged by the absence of Trump — who skipped it for a taped interview with departed Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, which was released five minutes before the debate began — and his unfolding legal drama in Georgia. Trump heavily promoted the interview and predicted it would draw more viewers than the debate on Fox News.

Also Wednesday, the country witnessed the bookings and release of mesmerizing mug shots of some of Trump’s alleged co-conspirators — Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell — in the plot to steal the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump is expected to surrender to authorities in Atlanta on Thursday.

The preceding hours also brought the news of a plane crash in which one passenger was reported to be the Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led an aborted coup attempt against Putin’s regime in June, according to Russian state media. And competing for a slice of national attention Wednesday: India became the first country to reach the moon’s south pole. It was a cascade of events in the preceding hours that couldn’t have been more ill-timed for the contenders hoping to seize the country’s attention.

Various Republicans defend Pence over Jan. 6

Some of the GOP candidates were asked whether Pence did the right thing by certifying the election result on Jan. 6, 2021, despite the demands he faced from Trump to block the counting of electoral votes.

It’s a topic many Republicans typically prefer to avoid given the pro-Trump sentiments within their voter base. But when they were pressed, it became clear that many are sympathetic to Pence.

“Absolutely, he did the right thing,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who sought to be positive toward Republicans throughout the evening and avoided clashes or criticisms of his rivals.

Haley agreed.

“I do think Mike Pence did the right thing,” she said.

Christie was more emphatic: “Mike Pence stood for the Constitution, and he deserves not grudging credit. He deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office” first.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum also said Pence did the right thing.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson took it a step further, pointing to the arguments by some legal experts who say Trump could even be “disqualified under the 14th Amendment from being president again as a result of the insurrection.”

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