Sparks fly as Trump’s opponents attack his shadow and each other

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Milwaukee: Some of Donald Trump’s rivals have used the first Republican presidential primary debate to launch a blistering attack against the former US president as he prepares to surrender in Georgia over an alleged plot to subvert the 2020 election.

But in a sign of the sway Trump continues to have over the party and his ongoing dominance in the polls, the Republican frontrunner skipped the Fox News-hosted event. He appeared instead in an interview with axed Fox host Tucker Carlson, which aired on X, formerly known as Twitter, as the debate got underway.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley go for it during the first Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News.Credit: AP

With 15 months until the presidential election, the campaign began in earnest on Thursday (AEST) when eight Republicans vying for the party’s nomination to run against President Joe Biden took centre stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to present their vision to voters on issues such as the economy, abortion, immigration and the war in Ukraine.

But while Trump was a no-show, his presence loomed over the debate, as candidates fielded questions about his criminal charges and his role in trying to stop President Joe Biden’s victory being certified.

Former New Jersey governor Christie, once a Trump ally, delivered one of the strongest attacks of the night against him, telling the audience: “Someone’s got to stop normalising this conduct. Whether you believe the charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States”.

A reporter watches former president Donald Trump’s online interview with Tucker Carlson in the media centre of the first Republican candidates’ debate for the 2024 election.Credit: Reuters

His concerns were echoed by former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who said that Trump was “morally disqualified” to serve as president, while former UN ambassador Nikki Haley said: “we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”

“Whether president Trump should serve or not, I trust the American people: let them vote, let them decide,” she said. “But what they will tell you is that it is time for a new-generation conservative leader. We have to look at the fact that three quarters of Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden.”

The debate took place a day before Trump plans to surrender in Georgia for what will be the fourth criminal case against him.

An Atlanta-based grand jury indicted the former president and 18 allies earlier this month in connection with an alleged “criminal enterprise” designed to overturn the result to stop Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

From right: Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence and Chris Christie at the debate Donald Trump skipped.Credit: Bloomberg

Earlier in the day, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who served as Trump’s lawyer in the aftermath of the election, surrendered and had his mugshot taken, with his bail set at $US150,000 ($231,000).

Yet despite Trump’s legal woes piling up, Milwaukee’s Fiverse Stadium where the debate took place was filled with loyal supporters and allies who believe he will return to the White House.

“I think he’s going to be proven innocent,” Oshkosh resident Dan Henning told this masthead. “If we had a justice system that was fair and honest, this wouldn’t be happening to him.”

The debate kicked off with questions about the economy, but quickly got heated when 38-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been rising in the polls despite having no political experience, accused “professional politicians in the Republican Party” from running away from America’s problems and declared it would take “an outsider” to fix them.

This sparked heated sparring between him and Mike Pence, with the former vice president touting his experience and labelling Ramaswamy a “rookie”.

But the most intense moments of the night came when moderators turned to foreign policy and questioned the country’s continued financial support for Ukraine in the war against Russia.

Ramaswamy was the only candidate to raise his hands when they were asked if they would not support Ukraine, saying it was “disastrous that we are protecting an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our own southern border”.

This set off Pence, Christie and Haley, with the former UN ambassador pointing to the death of Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin as she declared that Putin was a killer and that Ukraine was “the first line of defence for us”.

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she told Ramaswamy as he repeatedly attempted to talk over her.

Abortion was also a divisive issue for the candidates, with DeSantis touting his six-week abortion ban in Florida, while Pence called for a 15-week national ban.

Prompting Haley to try to put a stop to it: “We need to stop demonising this issue. A federal ban would take 60 Senate votes and a majority of the house. So in order to do that, let’s find consensus… Let’s treat this like the respectful issue that it is and humanise the situation.”

To qualify for the debate, candidates had to meet the Republican National Committee’s rules, which include getting at least 1 per cent in two national polls and at least 40,000 unique donors, as well as signing a pledge to support the person who eventually wins the nomination. Those who qualified were Trump, DeSantis, Pence, Haley, Ramaswamy, Christie, Hutchinson, Senator Tim Scott, and current North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

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