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Left to right: former U.S. vice-president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season, in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23.Win McNamee/Getty Images

When eight Republican presidential candidates clashed Wednesday night in the first chaotic debate of the 2024 primaries, the most controversial issue was the one contender who wasn’t there.

Unfolding on the eve of former president Donald Trump’s arraignment in Atlanta – where he will face his fourth set of criminal charges – the battle in Milwaukee saw his challengers grapple with the likelihood that a man who tried to overturn the results of the last election will lead their party into the next one.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a one-time ally of Mr. Trump’s who has recently morphed into one of his fiercest critics within the party, said the former president’s “conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.” Asa Hutchinson, an ex-governor of Arkansas running an even longer-shot campaign, said Mr. Trump should be constitutionally barred from office “as a result of the insurrection.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and political neophyte, fired back with a full-throated defence of Mr. Trump in the Fox News-hosted tilt.

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“President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact,” he told thousands of party faithful gathered in a cavernous basketball arena. “We cannot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents.”

Mr. Trump, the runaway front-runner for the nomination, opted to skip the debate entirely. Instead, he gave a pre-taped interview to Tucker Carlson, the fired former Fox News host, in which he dismissed his competitors entirely.

“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?” he said on Mr. Carlson’s Twitter show.

With the former president holding a poll lead of more than 30 percentage points in the primary contest, Wednesday’s debate was somewhere between a fight for second place, an audition for a role in a future potential Trump administration and a battle over the direction of a party dominated by him.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, currently polling a distant second, tried to avoid taking a position on Mr. Trump’s behaviour after the 2020 election. When asked if he felt former vice-president Mike Pence had done the right thing in certifying Joe Biden’s victory result over Mr. Trump’s objections, Mr. DeSantis replied: “This election is not about January 6 of 2021, it’s about January 20 of 2025.”

After Mr. Pence and moderator Bret Baier pressed Mr. DeSantis to answer the question, he responded with some exasperation. “We’ve answered this so many times. Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him.”

Mr. DeSantis, already struggling with perceptions that he is awkward and overly scripted, tried repeatedly to evade giving clear answers.

When moderator Martha MacCallum asked all candidates for a show of hands on whether they accept that humans contribute to climate change, Mr. DeSantis shut it down. “Look, we’re not schoolchildren,” he said. Asked if he supported a federal abortion ban, he would only say he would “stand on the side of life.” On whether he would authorize further military aid to Ukraine, he said European countries should “step up” and do more to help.

Mr. Ramaswamy, on the other hand, made an unabashed play for the party’s far-right. He labelled climate change, whose existence is a scientific consensus, “a hoax,” promised to stop helping Kyiv fight Russia’s invasion, declared “there are only two genders,” vowed to abolish the FBI and to pardon Mr. Trump.

Climbing in the polls despite having almost no public profile before his presidential run, Mr. Ramaswamy took the most flak from his fellow contenders.

“You want to go and defund Israel, you want to give Taiwan to China, you want to give Ukraine to Russia,” Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina governor, chided him. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”

Mr. Christie dismissed him as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”

Mr. Ramaswamy fired back that Mr. Christie had gotten former Democratic president Barack Obama re-elected by publicly hugging him while working together on the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and painted Ms. Haley as a warmonger. “I wish you well in your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon,” he said.

Mr. Baier and Ms. MacCallum repeatedly appeared to lose control of the debate as the candidates talked over each other and the moderators. The live audience erupted into competing sections of cheers and boos, which sometimes drowned out the debate.

The cut and thrust often seemed to leave behind South Caroline Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, both of whom have tried to campaign as more collegial contenders for the party’s crown.

Despite the theatrics, the candidates did largely appear to agree on a range of subjects, from cutting back or abolishing the federal department of education to sending the U.S. military into Mexico to attack drug cartels, a policy that would almost certainly raise serious international sovereignty questions.

Whether any of them can make a dent in Mr. Trump’s lead remains to be seen. The next debate is scheduled for late September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; Mr. Trump has signalled he will likely skip that one, too. So far, he has given no sign of slowing down his re-election campaign even as prosecutors manoeuvre to put him on trial early next year.

The first caucuses and primaries of the nominating contest are in January of 2024.

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