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WISCONSIN, USA – Several Republican presidential contenders exchanged sharp attacks at their first debate on Wednesday as they jockeyed for position behind the absent front-runner for the party’s 2024 nomination, Donald Trump.
In particular, Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur and political neophyte who has shown surprising strength in recent polls, faced a series of insults from some of his more experienced rivals.
“We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” former Vice President Mike Pence said, while former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accused Ramaswamy of sounding “like ChatGPT,” a reference to artificial intelligence.
For his part, Ramaswamy fired back by emphasizing his status as an outsider, calling everyone else on stage “bought and paid for” and accusing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – who stands in a distant second place behind Trump – of being a “super PAC puppet,” a reference to independent political action committees that typically raise unlimited sums of money from corporations and individuals.
The barbs underscored the opportunity that each candidate had to make a national impression, with Trump choosing to skip the debate at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, home to next year’s Republican National Convention. But they also risked further cementing Trump’s sizable lead in opinion polls by tearing one another down rather than the former president.
With the election more than 14 months away, Trump remains the clear-cut leader among Republican voters despite his four criminal indictments.
The former president, 77, skipped the debate in favor of a pre-recorded interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson that 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.
The candidates also went after Democratic President Joe Biden from the outset. Moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, both Fox News hosts, started the debate by asking about the U.S. economy.
“Our country is in decline,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who stands in a distant second place behind Trump but ahead of the rest of the field. “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, Republican candidates including former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and US Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina 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.
Wary of targeting Trump
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.
Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump campaign adviser, predicted that the candidates would spend a significant amount of time discussing the former president and dismissed the debate as an “audition” to be Trump’s vice president.
Polls show that most Republicans view the criminal charges against Trump as politically motivated, making the topic a tricky one to navigate for his rivals.
The eight participants included Scott, Ramaswamy, Pence, Hutchinson, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, DeSantis, Christie, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
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. – Rappler.com