The Republican presidential candidates vying to be the leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump fought — sometimes bitterly — over abortion rights, US support for Ukraine and the future of the party during the first primary debate of the 2024 campaign.
But on what is arguably the most consequential choice facing the party, virtually all lined up behind Trump, saying they would support the former president if he is their nominee, even if he is convicted in a court of law as he faces a slew of criminal charges.
It was a reminder of the power Trump continues to wield in the party, even as he chose to skip the debate, held in Milwaukee, insisting there was no point in participating given his commanding lead.
With less than five months until the Iowa caucuses jumpstart the GOP presidential nomination process, the debate was a critical moment for candidates trying to break through and emerge as the Trump alternative in the race. For Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his campaign in May to great fanfare but has since struggled to gain traction, it was a chance to prove that he deserves to maintain his second-place footing.
But DeSantis was sometimes eclipsed by lower-polling candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who tried to use the event, hosted by Fox News, to introduce themselves to millions of viewers and create the kind of viral moment that might spark new momentum as the campaign enters its critical next phase.
While the candidates repeatedly tangled — often talking over moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who tried to maintain control — all but two said they would support Trump as the nominee, even if he ends up a convicted felon.
The question came nearly an hour into the debate and a day before Trump is set to surrender in Georgia on charges of trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election.
The moderators appeared apologetic even to be raising the issue of a potentially incarcerated nominee, saying they would spend just a “brief moment” discussing what they called “the elephant not in the room,” which drew boos from the audience.
“Someone’s got to stop normalizing misconduct. 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,” said Christie, who has emerged as one of Trump’s harshest critics and was one of only two candidates who did not raise their hands when asked if they would support him. Christie was promptly booed.
DeSantis, who is polling a distant second to Trump, was among those who did raise his hand. He said Pence “did his duty” on Jan. 6, 2021, when he refused to go along with Trump’s unconstitutional scheme to overturn the vote, but nonetheless pressed the hosts to move on.
“This election is not about Jan. 6, 2021. It’s about Jan. 20 of 2025 when the next president is going to take office,” he said.
The prime-time event unfolded at a moment of reckoning for the Republican Party.
Trump is the prohibitive early front-runner in the race, raising serious questions about whether the party will have much of a competitive primary. Yet Trump’s vulnerabilities in a general election are clear, particularly after four criminal indictments that charge him with hoarding classified documents, conspiring to overturn the 2020 election and making hush money payments to a porn actor and other women.
Yet Trump’s standing in the primary has only increased as the charges have mounted, leaving the GOP on track — barring a stunning realignment — to nominate a candidate who would enter the race against President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in a potentially weak position. Polling this month from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 64% of Americans are unlikely to support Trump if he is the GOP nominee, including 53% who say they would definitely not support him and 11% who say they would probably not support him in November 2024.
Trump, who had long said he felt it would be foolish to participate, given his dominant lead in the race, followed through with his threat to skip the Fox event in a blow to the network, which had wooed him privately and publicly to appear. Instead, Trump pre-recorded an interview with ex-Fox host Tucker Carlson that was posted to the platform formerly known as Twitter right before the debate kicked off.
“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? Should I be doing that at a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me?” Trump said in the interview.