Two days after the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 election cycle, it’s clear that former President Donald Trump was right to skip out on the proceedings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to his supporters and a number of critics.
However, no one, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), fully separated themselves from the pack or made a serious case to the Trump faithful to ditch the former president in light of his legal troubles, and even a day after being arrested and booked in Fulton County, Georgia, Trump remains the GOP’s presumptive front-runner.
As of Friday, Trump holds a 41.1-point average lead over DeSantis, according to the RealClearPolitics polling aggregate, a lead that has steadily grown amid a steady stream of federal indictments for the former president.
Republican operatives supporting Trump’s campaign, and two backing other candidates this cycle, say that Trump’s decision not to show up Wednesday once again forced the Republican field to rally behind the “elephant not in the room,” as Fox News’ debate host Bret Baier referred to Trump Wednesday evening.
“Trump skipped the debate, and he made every other candidate on that stage defend him in the process,” one MAGA-affiliated operative told the Washington Examiner. “DeSantis had no idea what to do at first and was cowed into offering support by Ramaswamy. It was brilliant.”
The incident that operative was referring to occurred just after the half-way point, when debate moderators asked candidates to, by a show of hands, say if they would still back Trump as the nominee if he is convicted in any of his four indictments. Ramaswamy’s hand shot up immediately, while DeSantis cast a furtive glance at the other candidates’ reactions before also raising his hand.
Trump clearly noticed the moment, as he would later go on to declare Ramaswamy, who some Trump allies have floated as a potential vice presidential pick, the winner of the debate.
“This answer gave Vivek Ramaswamy a big WIN in the debate because of a thing called TRUTH,” the former president wrote on Truth Social, noting Ramaswamy’s repeated claims that Trump was the “best president of the 21st century” and vow to, if elected, pardon him on his first day in office. “Thank you Vivek!”
“If Trump had been there Wednesday, I think the second portion, where candidates were forced to pick a side on his indictments, would have gone very differently,” a Republican operative opposed to Trump added. “If he was on the stage, I think you would have seen folks like Mike Pence, maybe Nikki Haley go after him a little bit more. I’m not sure if DeSantis would have played things differently, but he couldn’t possibly have looked worse than he already did Wednesday.”
Instead of debating, Trump opted to appear before voters in a different format Wednesday evening: A taped-to-live interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson that was published on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Though many criticized some of the “softball” questions Carlson asked of the former president, the interview had still garnered more than 250 million views as of Friday morning. For comparison, the Fox News debate earned roughly 13 million viewers on Wednesday.
And while Democrats declared President Joe Biden the “big winner” Wednesday night, multiple Democratic officials tell the Washington Examiner that the debate “moved us that much closer to a rematch next year.”
Democratic officials have suggested to the Washington Examiner in the past that the president wants to run against Trump again. His campaign and the party believe that, coupled with a handful of positive economic indicators, Trump’s legal problems will slowly pull votes away from him in the general election, even if they help him during the primary.
“President Biden is focused on his economic agenda and delivering for hardworking, American families,” one campaign official told the Washington Examiner. “We know that, no matter who wins the Republican nomination, they will be supporting an agenda that seeks to directly undermine the economic progress ushered in by this administration, raising costs and taxes on lower and middle income families while providing tax handouts to the rich and corporations in the process.”
Biden campaign officials also say not to expect the president to specifically criticize Trump amid the wash of legal issues he is facing, though he did take a subtle dig at his likely 2024 opponent Wednesday night.
Biden’s political account posted a clip of Haley blaming not only Democrats for the current federal deficit, but also the Trump administration.
“What she said,” Biden wrote simply in the caption.