Republican 2024 hopefuls clash in 1st debate, including over absentee Trump

Republican 2024 hopefuls clash in 1st debate, including over absentee Trump

Trump looms large over debate, which was repeatedly punctuated by testy and fierce exchanges between Republican candidates

By Michael Hernandez

WASHINGTON (AA) - Republicans seeking their party's nomination squared off Wednesday night in what marked the first of several presidential debates, highlighting great divides within the party, including over former President Donald Trump.

The debate, which was repeatedly punctuated by testy and fierce exchanges between the candidates, took place in the shadow of Trump's decision not to attend the Milwaukee, Wisconsin showdown, which inaugurates the more heated phase of the 2024 White House race.

The ex-president has said he would not join the contest because of his significant lead in polling and has refused to sign on to a pledge from the Republican National Committee to support the party's eventual nominee, regardless of who it is, a requirement for attendance.

Each of the eight candidates who took part in Wednesday's debate -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott -- repeatedly used the debate stage to highlight their strong differences of opinion on a slate of issues that ranged from abortion to Trump himself.

In what marked one of the night's most volatile exchanges, Christie said he would not support Trump if he receives the Republican presidential nomination due to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, setting off a firestorm with Ramaswamy. Only Hutchinson took a similar position.

"Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States," Christie said to a mixture of boos and applause.

Ramaswamy, who has aligned himself with Trump's wing of the party, said he believes Trump "was the best president of the 21st century," accusing Christie of being motivated by "vengeance and grievance."

"You sit here talking about how you want to stand up for the rule of law, and law and order. And the fact is that it can't be selective," retorted Christie. "I know a lot better than you do. You've never done it, like you've never done anything to try to advance the interests of this government except to put yourself forward as a candidate tonight."

On the events of Jan. 6, 2021, Republicans stood in support of Pence's decision to turn down Trump's demands to reject certification of the electoral votes that saw President Joe Biden formally become president.

DeSantis initially declined to answer when asked if Pence acted correctly during the Capitol insurrection but eventually said "Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him."

Ramaswamy was the sole Republican to say he would not support continued funding for Ukraine amid Russia's ongoing war, saying the policy is "disastrous" and claiming that it is diverting funding from other policy objectives including border security as it pushes Moscow closer to China.

"The Russia-China alliance is the single greatest threat we face, and I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv to their pope Zelenskyy without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the Southside of Chicago or Kensington," he said, alluding to wartime visits to Ukraine taken by some of his fellow Republicans.

Pence quickly pushed back, saying "anybody that thinks we can't solve the problems here in the United States and be the leader the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on Earth. We can do both, Vivek. We've done both."

Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN envoy, shot back at Ramaswamy as well, accusing the ex-pharmaceutical executive of lacking "moral clarity."

"We have to know that Ukraine is the first line of defense for us. And the problem that Vivek doesn't understand is he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia. He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel," she said.

Russian President Vladimir "Putin has said once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. That's a World War. We're trying to prevent war," she added.

For his part, DeSantis, the second-highest polling candidate behind Trump heading into Wednesday's event, largely remained on the sidelines for the night, mostly refraining from locking horns with his competitors.

But Pence repeatedly clashed with the 38 year-old Ramaswamy, saying, "Now is not the time for on the job training. We don't need to bring in a rookie, we don't need to bring in people without experience."

"Vivek, you recently said a president can't do everything. Well, I got news for you, Vivek. I've been in the hallway. I've been in the West Wing. A president in the United States has to confront every crisis facing America," he said. "Let me explain it to you. I'll go slower this time."

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