Absent Trump steals show at raucous Republican debate

Former US president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves the opening of his campaign headquaters in Manchester, New Hampshire, US, on 27 June, 2023Reuters

Eight Republican presidential candidates faced off for the first primary debate of the 2024 election cycle Wednesday -- with frontrunner Donald Trump stealing the spotlight, despite spurning the showdown.

Trump's snubbing of the two-hour Milwaukee event deprived a chasing pack of rivals, whom he leads by a large margin in polling, of the opportunity to take shots at him live on stage.

He instead gave a recorded interview with former Fox News star Tucker Carlson that was posted online minutes before the debate got underway.

But Trump still loomed over the debate, with his multiple prosecutions the subject of questions from the Fox News hosts moderating the event.

Candidates were asked to signal if they would support Trump as the party's nominee if he is convicted in one of the criminal cases he is facing.

Every candidate raised their hand except Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who waved his finger.

"Here's the bottom line. Someone's got to stop normalizing this conduct, OK," Christie said.

"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."

He was loudly booed alongside Hutchinson, who added: "Obviously, I'm not going to support somebody who's been convicted of a serious felony."

Trump will surrender to authorities in Atlanta on Thursday over his fourth indictment of the year, for an alleged criminal conspiracy to steal the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.

Trump said during his Carlson interview that it did not make sense for him to take part in the debate as he was leading his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination by 50 to 60 points in the polls.

He called Biden the "worst president in the history of our country" and suggested that the 80-year-old president may not be the Democratic candidate come election day in November 2024.

"I think he's worse mentally than he is physically, and physically he's not exactly a triathlete," Trump said.

"In many ways I'd love to run against him because his record's so bad."

Trump also dismissed his four criminal indictments calling them "trivia, nonsense."

Fierce debate, noisy clashes

For his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the debate was a much-needed chance to reverse flagging poll numbers and demonstrate that he is a viable alternative.

The moderators opened with a question on hit song "Rich Men North of Richmond," about working class alienation, prompting the 44-year-old DeSantis to warn that the country is "in decline."

"This decline is not inevitable. It's a choice," he said.

DeSantis also talked about his record on keeping Florida open during the Covid-19 pandemic, earning a cheer when he discussed how he would have fired government scientist Anthony Fauci.

With a seismic shift needed to dethrone Trump, the debate offered a showcase for candidates angling to be Trump's running mate.

For lower profile candidates like businessman Vivek Ramaswamy the event was a chance to introduce themselves to the wider public -- as well as make their case for jobs in a future Trump administration.

Trump's vice president Mike Pence said he was the "best prepared" candidate for office but was booed during an exchange with Ramaswamy for calling the political newcomer a "rookie."

Ramaswamy described himself as "the only person on stage who is not bought and paid for," earning a slapdown from Christie, who complained he'd "had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like Chat GPT."

The candidates equivocated on climate change, railed against street crime and supported curbs on abortion access -- an issue that polarises America, with Pence rebuking former UN ambassador Nikki Haley over her call for "consensus" on the issue.

The Biden campaign bought expensive ad slots on Fox News and its website before the debate, while the president said he would watch as much of the event "as I can."

Trump's former attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is charged with racketeering in the case alongside Trump and 17 other co-defendants, surrendered in Georgia's capital hours before the debate.