Former President Donald Trump didn’t show up to the presidential debate Wednesday, and his challengers got on just fine: Instead of attacking Trump, they unloaded on his protege.

No candidate was the subject of more attacks during the debate than entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and only former Vice President Mike Pence had more speaking time — though much of what he said was shouted over interruptions from Ramaswamy.

Some have called the 38-year-old Ramaswamy “Trump 2.0” because of his policy platform and his status as a political outsider, and on Wednesday, Ramaswamy received the brunt of attacks usually reserved for a race’s front-runner. 

It started when Ramaswamy knocked the “professional politicians” in Washington, just minutes into the debate — all of the debate’s participants, except for Ramaswamy, have held elected office.

He said that the next president should be a political “outsider,” not someone who has contributed to what he sees as the problems in Washington.

“For a long time, we’ve had professional politicians of the Republican Party who have been running from something,” he said. “Now is our moment to start running to something.”

The comment unleashed the floodgates from Pence, who interjected to defend the Trump-Pence administration, saying he was “incredibly proud” of its record.

Ramaswamy fired back with a critique of government bureaucracy. “The only war that I will declare as U.S. president will be a war on the federal administrative state,” Ramaswamy said.

“Now is not the time for on-the-job experience,” Pence responded. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in someone without experience.”

The exchange was reminiscent of the rest of the night — attacks on Ramaswamy’s age and inexperience, his position on Ukraine and his willingness to pardon Trump for his ongoing legal challenges. Often, it was Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sparring with Ramaswamy, who often resorted to shouting in response.

Stefan Mychajliw, deputy communications director for Ramaswamy, said the attacks were a sign of Ramaswamy’s prominence. “You always take shots at the front-runner,” he told the Deseret News after the debate. “Those seven career politicians saw what the rest of America sees: that Vivek Ramaswamy, no question about it, is now the clear front-runner out of the pack.”

Not everyone had the same impression. “(Ramaswamy’s) naïveté is breathtaking,” said Kirk Jowers, the former director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and general counsel for the Romney 2012 campaign, who attended the debate as a guest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

When Donald Trump Jr. was asked who had the best debate performance of the night, Trump Jr. responded, “Honestly, Vivek.”

“He put people in their place,” he said. “He had original thoughts.”

Trump skips the debate, yet still gets airtime

Trump, who leads in many national polls by over 40 percentage points, skipped the debate in favor of a prerecorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, released at the same time as the debate.

While Trump did not attend the debate, his supporters did. Two young men holding Trump signs arrived as early as midday Tuesday, a full 32 hours before the debate. Donald Trump Jr. and former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake greeted onlookers outside the arena, the latter wearing a pin reading, “Trump Was Right.” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., arrived to the press filing area post-debate, alongside his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, despite efforts by Fox News to keep them out of the area.

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Candidates who participated in the debate were DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Pence, Christie; former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley; Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Burgum tore his Achilles tendon while playing pickup basketball with campaign staff, and appeared onstage wearing a large boot on his foot.

A ninth candidate, radio host Larry Elder, arrived to the arena Wednesday afternoon, claiming to have met all the requirements for participation in the debate. He threatened to file a complaint to the Federal Election Commission against the Republican National Committee for “violation of debate rules” by restricting his participation, but ultimately was not allowed on the debate stage.

Candidates asked about Trump’s legal challenges

At several points throughout the debate, the Fox News moderators — Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum — asked candidates to weigh in on Trump’s indictments or efforts to challenge the 2020 election. Some candidates took the questions head-on; other decried the questions as “distracting” from bigger, future-looking issues.

Candidates were asked whether they would still support Trump if he were convicted in a court of law, if Trump were to win the party’s nomination.

All the candidates, except for Christie and Hutchinson, rose their hands to say they would.

“Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct, OK?” Christie said. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”

Hutchinson told the Deseret News after the debate he was “surprised” by the other candidates’ hesitance to condemn Trump. 

“All of the eight candidates on that stage are running against Donald Trump,” Hutchinson said. “So if you’re running against Donald Trump, let’s make your case effectively.”

Later, candidates were asked whether they supported Pence’s decision on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify the electoral results, despite pressure from Trump to reject them.

DeSantis responded, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him. Is this what we’re going to be focused on going forward?”

Baier noted that “Trump is beating you by 30 to 40 points in most polls,” explaining his justification for the question.

Christie interjected, saying that it was an important topic. “Before we can move on to the issues that Ron talked about, we have to dispense with the person who said that we need to suspend the Constitution to put forward his political career,” Christie said.

Haley agreed. “Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” she said. “We can’t win a general election that way.”

But other candidates were less willing to stay on the topic. “China loves us talking about the past,” Burgum said, saying the conversation prevented the candidates from debating issues that would affect Americans’ futures.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. | Morry Gash, Associated Press

Biden, not Trump, the early target

In the opening moments of the debate, President Joe Biden — not Trump — was the main target of the candidates. After candidates were introduced, a short clip of Biden was shown on the screen, touting “Bidenomics,” a nickname he gave to his economic policies: “Guess what? It worked,” he said.

The crowd booed.

The first question was given to DeSantis, who immediately attacked Biden.

“This country is in decline,” DeSantis said. “We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse this decline.”

The first candidate to attack Trump by name was Haley, who said, “Donald Trump added $1 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.” 

She continued, knocking Republican lawmakers’ record on government spending: “And so at the end of the day, you look at the 2024 budget, Republicans asked for $7.4 billion in earmarks. Democrats asked for $2.8 billion. So you tell me who the big spenders are, I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.” (Haley worked as an accountant prior to serving as South Carolina governor.)

Republican presidential candidates stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee.
Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. | Morry Gash, Associated Press

On climate, candidates hear from young voter

Moderators showed a video of Alexander Diaz, a Catholic University of America student involved with Young America’s Foundation and the American Conservation Coalition, who asked, “How will you as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party calm (young people’s) fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change?”

The moderators asked candidates to raise their hands if they agreed with the following statement: “Do you believe human behavior is causing climate change?”

DeSantis interjected. “We’re not schoolchildren,” he said. “Let’s have the debate.”

He slammed Biden’s response to the Hawaii wildfires, saying the president “was on the beach while people were suffering.”

“As somebody that’s handled disasters in Florida, you’ve got to be activated,” he continued. “You’ve got to be there.”

Ramaswamy interjected, blasting the “climate hoax.” The audience booed.

Christie jumped in, saying “enough” of “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” — a reference to Ramaswamy. He then compared Ramaswamy to Barack Obama, saying Ramaswamy’s self-introduction — as “a skinny guy with an odd last name” — was reminiscent of the former president.

“I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie said.

Scott jumped in, saying “being childish is not helpful to the American people.”

The moderators cut to a commercial break shortly after the spat.

Diaz, the student who asked the question, lamented the move to the Deseret News. “I liked Ron DeSantis’ answer,” Diaz told the Deseret News. “However, I wish the debate hadn’t been cut off by the ad break. I think it’s an important debate to be had among the leading Republican candidates.”

Candidates spar over Ukraine, national identity

Moderators asked if any candidates would not support additional aid to Ukraine. DeSantis and Ramaswamy said they would not. 

“I will have Europe pull their weight,” DeSantis said. “I think our support would be contingent on them doing it.”

Ramaswamy called continued aid for Ukraine “disastrous,” claiming the U.S. shouldn’t pour resources into Ukraine instead of defending its own southern border.

“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on this stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope (Ukrainian president Volodymyr) Zelenskyy, without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the south side of Chicago.” 

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The comment was a clear shot at Pence and Christie, both of whom visited Ukraine this summer and met with Zelenskyy, pledging continued support to the country in its war against Russia.

“I did go to Ukraine,” Christie said, detailing the gruesome war crimes committed by Russian troops upon Ukrainian civilians. “This is the Vladimir Putin who Donald Trump called ‘brilliant’ and ‘a genius,’” he said.

Pence argued that the U.S. is capable of both handling domestic challenges and being “the leader of the free world.”

“That’s a pretty small view of the greatest nation on Earth,” Pence said. “We can do both, Vivek.”

Haley, a former ambassador to the U.N., said the U.S. president needs to “know the difference between right and wrong,” arguing that the Ukraine-Russia war had a clear moral outcome. “You have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug,” Haley said.

She turned to Ramaswamy: “This guy (Putin) is a murderer, and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.”

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

Gov. Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy stand behinds lecturns as the debate.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as former Vice President Mike Pence and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy listen during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. | Morry Gash, Associated Press