'The elephant not in the room': 5 takeaways from a Republican debate with no Donald Trump

In a race dominated by Donald Trump, eight other presidential contenders battled it out at the first Republican primary debate Wednesday in an uphill fight to stop the former president from running away with the nomination.

Trump's absence overshadowed the debate in Milwaukee, but gave his challengers a prime opportunity to seize the spotlight and emerge as the leading alternative.

Yet even as the frontrunner Trump enjoys a massive polling lead, most candidates only sparingly threw punches his way, instead lobbing most of their attacks at each other, President Joe Biden, his policy agenda and his son Hunter.

Here are five takeaways from the debate.

Republicans dance around Trump

In this photo taken on December 7, 2020 US President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremony presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to wrestler Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC.

Throughout the two-hour discussion, the Republican field struggled to make a clear argument against Trump, who polls show leading his next closest counterpart, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in national polls by about 40 percentage points.

DeSantis took no swings at Trump, spending more time railing on Biden's son Hunter Biden and liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros, while characterizing the U.S. as a country that has lost its way.

"We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline," DeSantis said.

There were some exceptions. Former Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, as expected, took shots at Trump over his legal woes and personal behavior. But the sharpest case against Trump arguably came from Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration.

During the first hour of debate, Haley was the only candidate to create a policy distinction with Trump, saying "our kids are never going to forgive us" for $8 trillion in new debt during the Trump administration.

Republican presidential candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Then Haley made a point that others seemed unwilling to articulate: that Trump is too polarizing to win another general election.

"It is time for a new generational conservative leader," she said. "We have to look at the fact that three-quarters of Americans don't want a rematch between Trump and Biden. And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can't win a general election that way."

Trump indictments: Most pledge support in 2024 even if convicted

Fox News debate moderator Bret Baier called Trump "the elephant not in the room."

His quadruple indictments came up about an hour into the discussion, and created one of the most contrasting moments for voters to measure in Wednesday’s debat

Republican presidential candidate Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (far right- lives a thumbs down as other candidates speak at Fiserv Forum during the first 2023 Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023

"This is the great thing about this country," he said. "Booing is allowed but it doesn't change the truth."

Those remarks prompted a response from Vivek Ramaswamy, who has given the most full-throated support for Trump on the campaign trail of any of the candidates, and called him "the best president of the 21st Century."

"Your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against Donald Trump," Ramaswamy said.

Republican candidates were then asked whether former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing when he opposed Trump's plan to overturn the 2020 election results by certifying Biden's victory on Jan. 6, 2021.

"Absolutely, he did the right thing," Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C, told the audience. "But we should be asking ourselves a bigger question about the weaponization of the Department of Justice. When I'm President, the first thing I'll do is fire (Attorney General) Merrick Garland."

When the question turned to DeSantis, however, the Florida governor seemed reluctant to answer directly, saying Democrats want to keep this topic going, and Republicans need to turn the page.

But the former vice president pressed for a response.

"I think the American people deserve to know whether everyone on this stage agrees that I kept my oath to the Constitution that day," Pence said. "There's no more important duty, so answer the question."

"I've answered this before, Mike did his duty, I've got no beef with him," DeSantis finally said.

Ramaswamy's coming-out party met with GOP fire

Republican presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Ramaswamy drew fire from multiple rivals as he sought to use the debate as a coming-out-party on the national stage after gaining traction in recent polls.

"First, let me just address a question that is on everybody's mind at home tonight," Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old billionaire businessman, said in his opening remarks. "Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?"

The Ohio Republican - who spoke out of turn frequently throughout the night - took no time irking his opponents.

Pence was the first to take a swipe at Ramaswamy: "Joe Biden has weakened this country at home and abroad. Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don't need to bring in a rookie."

Christie also reminded the audience that the last politician to stand on a stage and say he's a skinny guy with a funny name was former President Barack Obama. "I'm afraid we're dealing with the same type of amateur," Christie said.

As he angered his foes, Ramaswamy doubled down on his hardline conservative pitch.

"Do you want a Super PAC puppet or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth?" he said. "Do you want incremental change or do you want revolution?"

Republicans vary on national abortion ban

Biden and Democrats have made clear they plan to thrust abortion rights at the center of the president's 2024 reelection bid.

In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court ended Roe, six states have addressed reproductive rights questions and the liberal side has won each of those ballot questions.

Asked about where they stand in terms of a national standard, each of the Republican presidential candidates said they were “pro-life” but that meant something different with each answer.

Haley, the only woman running, said the GOP should be trying to find a consensus because any federal legislation needs 60 votes in the Senate. She said that means leaning into banning later term abortions and agreeing not to jail women who get them.

But Pence, who is well liked among evangelical voters demanding a national ban, cast abortion as a “moral issue.” He scolded Haley, saying that “consensus is the opposite of leadership.”

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participates in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Scott, like most on stage, said Congress should aim for a 15-week ban at least. When pressed on the issue, DeSantis talked up signing a 6-week ban in Florida while sharing his personal reasons for opposing abortion.

Christie said he doesn't support a federal prohibition and that it should be left up to the states.

Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz, in a statement released during the debate, said, "Americans have rejected the extreme, anti-choice positions of MAGA Republicans in the midterms and in elections throughout this year. They will again in 2024."

Candidates fight over additional aid for Ukraine

Republicans sparred over continued U.S. aid for Ukraine in its war against Ukraine, reflecting the declining support for Ukraine among the Republican base.

“The reality is today Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy said, arguing that China poses a bigger threat to the U.S. "We have to have the interests of Americans first."

DeSantis said continued support should be contingent on greater support from European counties.

"I will have Europe pull their weight. Right now, they're not doing it," DeSantis said.

Haley and Pence took the more traditional Republican view on foreign policy, voicing support for maintaining financial aid for Ukraine.

Haley ripped DeSantis for previously downplaying Russia's war in Ukraine as a "border dispute" and hit Ramaswamy for saying the U.S. should cede eastern Ukraine to Putin.

Republican presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pauses during a break in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said.

Pence told Ramaswamy “if we do the giveaway that you want to do to,” and give Putin eastern Ukraine, “it's not going to be too long” before Russia rolls across the border into a NATO nation.

Later while discussing Ukraine, DeSantis shifted to a more popular topic among Republican voters: addressing the southern border.

"I'm not going to send troops to Ukraine but I am going to send them to our southern border," DeSantis said.

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