Six of the eight Republican presidential hopefuls at their party's first 2024 debate on Wednesday indicated they would support former President Donald Trump as the 2024 White House nominee even if he is convicted of a crime.
Trump, who skipped the debate to sit instead for a friendly interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, has only solidified his lead among Republican voters in opinion polls despite facing four separate criminal indictments.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, US Senator Tim Scott, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum all put their hands up.
Only former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson - both of whom have attacked Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss - declined to raise their hands when asked on Fox News whether they would back a convicted Trump.
"Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States," Christie said to boos from a rowdy and partisan crowd.
That led to a sharp back-and-forth between Christie, Trump's biggest critic among Republican candidates, and Ramaswamy, Trump's most ardent defender.
"Honest to God, your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against one man," Ramaswamy said, prompting Christie to retort, "You make me laugh."
DeSantis, whose grasp on a distant second place in the polls has grown tenuous amid turmoil in his campaign, sought to pivot away from the 2020 election, instead urging the party to look ahead.
None of the strategies - confronting Trump's actions head on, supporting him despite his legal troubles or seeking to move beyond him - has dented the former president's status as the clearcut front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination for the November 2024 election.
Polls show that most Republicans view the criminal charges against Trump, 77, as politically motivated, making the topic a tricky one to navigate for his rivals.
The former president's interview with Carlson began streaming on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, just before the debate started in an effort to siphon away viewers. The interview had about 74 million views during its 46 minutes.
"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 and a network that isn't particularly friendly to me?" he asked Carlson.
Trump declined to directly address provocative questions posed by Carlson, such as whether a civil war was coming in the United States. Instead, he stuck to well-worn themes: false claims that he won the 2020 election, a promise to tighten immigration controls, and insults of President Joe Biden and some of his Republican rivals.
The debate featured several other sharp exchanges. In particular, Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old political neophyte who has shown surprising strength in recent polls, faced a series of insults from his rivals about his lack of experience.
"We don't need to bring in a rookie," Pence said, while Christie accused Ramaswamy of sounding "like ChatGPT," a reference to artificial intelligence.
Ramaswamy fired back by emphasizing his status as an outsider, calling everyone else on stage "bought and paid for" and accusing DeSantis of being a "super PAC puppet," a reference to independent political action committees that typically raise unlimited sums of money from corporations and individuals.
He also took the most isolationist position on the Ukraine-Russia war, arguing that it was not a priority for the US and suggesting he would cease military aid to Ukraine. That drew a sharp rebuke from Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations.
Country in decline?
The candidates also went after Biden, a Democrat, from the outset. Moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, both Fox News hosts, started the debate by asking about the US economy.
"Our country is in decline," DeSantis said. "We must reverse Bidenomics so that middle-class families have a chance to succeed again."
While the economy has shown surprising resilience, defying recession predictions with a robust labor market, polls show many voters - including a plurality of those who supported Biden in 2020 - feel the economy has worsened during his first three years in office amid persistent inflation.
With Trump absent, other candidates were seeking to displace DeSantis as the most plausible Trump alternative.
For DeSantis, who has suffered a slow but steady decline in the polls, the debate represented a chance to shift the narrative away from turmoil that has gripped his campaign in recent weeks, including a significant staffing shake-up.
But the attacks on Ramaswamy, a nimble debater, put the newcomer at the center of the event's first hour and suggested his rivals may view him as more of a present threat than DeSantis.
The debate, four months before the first Republican presidential nominating contest in Iowa, took place a day before Trump plans to surrender in Atlanta to face charges he sought to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. That timing will put him back in the spotlight just as his rivals are hoping to raise their profiles.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rudy Giuliani, Trump's former personal lawyer and a co-defendant in that case, surrendered in Atlanta to face charges relating to his alleged participation in the conspiracy to overthrow the election.
In the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month, Trump held 47% of the Republican vote nationally, with DeSantis dropping six percentage points from July to 13%. None of the other candidates has broken out of single digits.