The eight candidates faced off, with political novice Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, grabbing the limelight and claiming: “I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for.”
Mr Trump, who is dominating the Republican field for next year’s election, skipped last night’s debate, instead broadcasting a rambling interview before he turns himself in to Fulton County police to face charges of electoral fraud related to his refusal to accept defeat by Joe Biden in 2020.
Asked by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson why he was boycotting the event, Mr Trump, 77, noted his strong poll lead over Florida governor Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Mr Ramaswamy and others.
In the interview, which by this morning had garnered 120 million views on the X platform (formerly Twitter), he said: “I’m saying do I sit there for an hour or two hours or whatever it’s going to be and get harassed by people who shouldn’t even be running for president?”
Before he is released on bond, Mr Trump is expected to have his mugshot taken by police after he was indicted with 18 alleged accomplices on felony charges that they conspired to overturn President Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia — charges that carry up to 20 years in jail. The Georgia case is one of four criminal indictments he faces.
Mr Trump has vowed to continue his campaign, even from jail, and to stretch the US constitution to the limit by pardoning himself if convicted of federal crimes. But he cannot do that in Georgia, as it is not a federal case, and not even a Republican governor could absolve him — pardons there are decided by a state board.
However, underlining his vice-like grip on the Republican party, all but one of the eight candidates at the debate raised their hand when asked if they would support Mr Trump as their nominee, even if he is convicted in a court of law. One candidate, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, claimed to be wagging his finger rather than raising his hand.
“Someone’s got to stop normalising misconduct. 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,” said Mr Christie, a one-time Trump ally who has since become a fierce critic.
But Mr Ramaswamy drew whoops and cheers from the Trump-loving audience with full-throated support of the former president. “Let’s just speak the truth,” he said. “President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact.”
The biotech investor eclipsed Mr DeSantis, former vice-president Mike Pence and others in the field, currying favour with the crowd by denouncing man-made climate change as a “hoax” and confirming that he would withdraw US support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
When he was attacked by Mr Christie as an “amateur”, Mr Ramaswamy shot back: “Give me a hug just like you did to Obama.” That referenced the governor’s embrace of the former president after a storm ravaged New Jersey.
Nikki Haley, the only woman on a stage of men all wearing Trump-style red ties, tried to rise above the fray. The former governor of South Carolina said: “I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman’.” Mr Trump’s mounting legal troubles have done nothing to dent his support among his passionate partisans. With five months to go to the Iowa caucuses, he leads the Republicans’ 2024 field on an average of just over 50 per cent, against about 15 per cent for Mr DeSantis and nearly 10 per cent for Mr Ramaswamy.
But after his spirited showing in Milwaukee, the entrepreneur will have a bigger target on his back. Ms Haley, who also put in a creditable debate performance, attacked his position on Ukraine. “Under your watch, you would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she told Mr Ramaswamy.
Mr Pence also went on the attack, swiping at Mr Ramaswamy’s inexperience, saying: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training”.