Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday unleashed barbs on the economy, abortion and crime in the first primary debate of the campaign season. But their attacks did little to reset the dynamics of the race because they largely left frontrunner Donald Trump untouched.
(Bloomberg) — Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday unleashed barbs on the economy, abortion and crime in the first primary debate of the campaign season. But their attacks did little to reset the dynamics of the race because they largely left frontrunner Donald Trump untouched.
Even when moderators said they were going to address “the elephant not in the room,” most of the eight contenders assiduously avoided criticizing the former president, who opted not to participate in the debate and leads his opponents by an average of 40 percentage points in national polls.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for one, tried to avoid repeated questions about Trump’s four indictments, falling back on talking points decrying the weaponization of the federal government. When pressed to say if he agreed with former vice president Mike Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify the results of the 2020 election, DeSantis would only say: “Mike did his duty, I got no beef with him.”
The candidates, conscious of how slamming Trump might alienate voters they need to win over, instead trained their fire on President Joe Biden.
They skewered him principally on his handling of the economy — the issue Biden plans to make the centerpiece of his reelection bid. Even as inflation eases, voters are still feeling the sting of consumer-price increases that reached a four-decade high last year, leaving an opening for Republicans to win over swing voters on this issue.
With Trump absent from the event, DeSantis held center stage as the candidate with the next-highest polling position. The governor used the perch to talk up his record of opposing pandemic lockdowns and his plan for the US-Mexico border in answers that were more forceful and energetic than his typical campaign trail style. None of that managed to lure his rivals to pounce on him.
Instead, several assailed entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who had been riding a wave of polling momentum coming into the debate. During the foreign policy segment, former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley distinguished herself with a dig at him for his positions on Ukraine and Taiwan.
“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Haley said to huge applause in one of the event’s most animated moments. “The problem is that Vivek doesn’t understand. He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia. He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends.”
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, too, laid into Ramaswamy, declaring at one point he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”
Christie was an exception when it came to taking direct aim at Trump’s conduct, continuing the withering criticism he’s been doling out on the campaign trail.
“Here’s the bottom line, someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” Christie said to boos from the audience. “Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the President of the United States.”
The jeering suggests Christie’s lines, while memorable, won’t vault him out of the tier of candidates registering in only single digits in the polls.
The contenders near the outer edges of the stage did little to leave their mark with voters. Senator Tim Scott missed the opportunity to break out, as Haley and Pence asserted themselves far more than pundits had predicted.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum talked up his desire to bring small town values to Washington and the need for less restrictive energy policies, while former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson leaned on his record in a red state with low taxes and a budget surplus — touting traditional Republican fiscal orthodoxy that has lost its potency in the Trump-era GOP.
After the debate concluded, one of Trump’s top campaign advisers, Chris LaCivita, said the former president’s decision not to attend was validated within the first 30 minutes of the debate, given the long shadow he cast over his rivals’ answers. “It was a dominating presence by not even being there. So from that standpoint, for us, it was a big win,” he said.
–With assistance from Stephanie Lai.
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