At times onstage, Republican rivals could imagine the primary race was about issues, ideology and biography. Then reality set in.
It was, for 57 minutes, a glimpse into a post-Trump Republican Party.
They wrestled for long, heated stretches over policy and ideology. Young battled old. The lone woman chastised the seven men, casting herself as the adult in the room. Their personalities shone under the bright lights, displaying the strengths of a historically diverse field.
In the first primary debate of the 2024 race, the eight Republican participants tried to create a Trump-free zone — an alternative political universe where the G.O.P. race turned on issues, ideology and biography.
At least in the short term, the performance was unlikely to threaten Donald Trump’s dominance of the primary. He will probably pay little price for skipping the debate, a decision that allowed him to avoid direct questions — and challenges — not only about his criminal indictments but also some of the failed promises of his administration on immigration and federal spending.
He still leads the Republican race by double-digit margins, an advantage typically enjoyed by an incumbent president rather than a primary contender. A central challenger did not emerge on Wednesday night, leaving Mr. Trump with the benefits of a fractured field. Even a majority of those challenging him for the nomination said they would continue to support him if he was convicted.
Yet the former president’s absence created an opening, if an illusory one, for a broader array of conservative positions. Republicans have long discussed the far-off notion of what Trumpism without Mr. Trump would look like. For fleeting moments in Milwaukee, that possibility felt almost like a reality.
The Fox News hosts waited nearly an hour to ask only two questions in the entire two-hour debate on Mr. Trump, or, as Bret Baier, one of the moderators, called him, “the elephant not in the room.” Asked whether they would back the former president if he was convicted, all but Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, and Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, indicated that they would.
The Trump-free spell, it seemed, was broken.
Since his rise eight years ago, Mr. Trump has sucked the oxygen out of Republican gatherings, from the halls of Congress to the fairgrounds of Iowa. The manufactured environment of the debate seemed to remind Republicans what it was like to breathe, politically speaking, in Trumpless rooms.
On abortion, all the candidates declared themselves “pro-life.” But they disagreed on the specifics of that pledge in a post-Roe world. Former Vice President Mike Pence supported a federal ban. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida indicated that states should be allowed to set their own restrictions, despite signing a six-week ban in his home state. And Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, urged Republicans to “stop demonizing” the issue, saying that the party lacked the votes to pass any kind of federal restriction.
Without Mr. Trump, candidates were at times better able to debate the issues. Vivek Ramaswamy said “the climate change agenda” was a “hoax,” and Nikki Haley pledged to pressure China and India to lower emissions.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
Questions about aid to Ukraine highlighted a rift between the traditional hawkish view of foreign policy and an anti-interventionist wing. Mr. Pence, Ms. Haley and Mr. Christie supported more funding to push back on the Russian invasion and cast President Vladimir V. Putin, as Mr. Pence put it, as “a dictator and a murderer.” Mr. DeSantis called for Europe to foot more of the bill. And Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old biotech investor and political novice, opposed any future engagement.
“I find it offensive, that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their Pope, Zelensky, without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago or Kensington,” Mr. Ramaswamy said.
And when asked whether human behavior caused climate change, Mr. DeSantis resisted answering with a simple show of hands, as the moderators had requested. Mr. Ramaswamy denounced “the climate change agenda” as a “hoax.” Ms. Haley said she would pressure China and India to lower their emissions.
For years, such policy differences have been overshadowed by Mr. Trump’s personal obsessions: his feuds, his falsehoods about the 2020 election, his four criminal cases. In the early months of the primary race, those issues dogged the candidates, who were forced to answer for every new revelation in the series of legal investigations into Mr. Trump’s conduct. That is likely to continue, as the campaign grows increasingly intertwined with his court appearances and proceedings.
But without Mr. Trump dominating the stage, the face-off signaled that the race to emerge as Mr. Trump’s chief rival remains far from set.
Mr. DeSantis failed to cement his place as Mr. Trump’s central foe, finding himself often relegated to the sidelines of the debate. Senator Tim Scott, a rising figure in Iowa, struggled to cut through the fray with his positive, future-forward message. And without the foil of Mr. Trump, Mr. Christie’s case against him — his central campaign argument — fell flatter.
The debate also revealed that the competition to be Mr. Trump’s chief rival is still in flux. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida failed to cement that position, finding himself often relegated to the sidelines of the debate.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times
Other candidates delivered stronger performances. Ms. Haley tried to portray herself as focused on solutions and above the political fray. “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” she said, invoking Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. Ramaswamy grabbed for attention, sparring with rivals he derided as “super PAC puppets” and professional politicians who were “bought and paid for.” His rise probably offers no serious risk to Mr. Trump, a man he called “the best president of the 21st century.” Again and again, his aggressive posture was slapped down by his rivals, who called him an “amateur” and a “rookie.”
Mr. Pence came eager to explain his decision to resist Mr. Trump’s plot to overthrow the 2020 election. He got his moment, too, gaining backing from Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Christie, who both agreed that he was right to certify the election. “I chose the Constitution, and I always will,” Mr. Pence said.
None of those remarks may matter in the end. In the early hours after the debate, there was little indication that the exchanges onstage would do much to loosen Mr. Trump’s grip on the party. The durable effect of this debate may be little more than a few hours of headlines, a round of coverage that will be washed away when Mr. Trump voluntarily surrenders at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta on Thursday evening.
For now at least, the alternate universe amounted to elaborate cosplay, complete with podiums, a dramatic backdrop and even costumes. Across the stage, each of the seven men — whether they were pro-Trump or anti-Trump — wore dark suits, white shirts and red ties.
It’s a uniform frequently favored by another man. One who wasn’t there.