Republican candidates clash in first debate without Trump

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Republican candidates clash in first debate without Trump

The first Republican 2024 presidential debate has seen passionate clashes between eight rivals vying to displace the absent frontrunner Donald Trump.

The contenders brawled on stage over the economy, Ukraine, their qualifications and political baggage.

While most were reluctant to attack Mr Trump, some of the hopefuls did condemn the no-show ex-president.

The Republican nominee will challenge the Democratic candidate, probably President Joe Biden, in November 2024.

On stage in the Fox News primetime showdown in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday night were Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice-President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

Mr DeSantis – who is struggling to hold on to a distant second place as the early promise of his campaign stutters – vowed to “send Biden back to his basement” more than once.

But he struggled for the spotlight at times against rising star Vivek Ramaswamy, a billionaire political newcomer.

“Do you want incremental reform?” the 38-year-old said. “Or do you want revolution?”

Mr Ramaswamy said of his rivals: “Do you want a super PAC puppet or patriot who speaks the truth?”

Mr Pence targeted Mr Ramaswamy’s lack of experience, declaring: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

Mr Christie also derided Mr Ramaswamy as an “amateur”, and said he sounded like a chatbot.

As the candidates squabbled at one point, Ms Haley – the only woman in the Republican race – cut in: “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done ask a woman.'”

She later barracked Mr Ramaswamy as he argued the Ukraine-Russia war was not a US priority: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows!”

The candidates were asked if they would support Mr Trump if he became the eventual Republican nominee. Two of the eight on stage – Mr Christie and Mr Hutchinson – did not raise their hands.

Mr Christie was booed and cheered as he said: “The conduct [of Mr Trump] is beneath the office of president of the United States.”

Mr Trump did not participate in the debate, citing his dominance in the race. He instead recorded an interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson, which aired online at the same time in a bid to upstage the televised showdown.

The former president said he felt no need to be “harassed” by lesser rivals.

Wednesday’s debate took place just hours before Mr Trump will travel to Georgia to be arrested on charges of plotting to subvert the 2020 election results in that state.

Despite his legal troubles, Mr Trump leads the Republican race on 62% – way more than all his rivals combined, according to an opinion poll released on Sunday by the BBC’s US partner CBS News.

Mr DeSantis trails in second place on 16%. Mr Ramaswamy was third on 7%.

Mr Trump, 77, was also running neck-and-neck in a hypothetical matchup with Mr Biden, according to a Quinnipiac University opinion poll last week. It found 47% of respondents supported Mr Biden, while 46% backed Mr Trump.

The Republican TV debates will allow the electorate to size up the contenders and winnow a crowded field.

Voters will begin choosing their preferred candidate in state-by-state elections known as primaries this January in Iowa.

The eventual Republican nominee will be crowned at the party convention, also in Milwaukee, in July, before the general election four months later.