Eight candidates battled for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination Wednesday night, but without front-runner Donald Trump, the debate felt more like a fight for second place.
In the weeks ahead of the first debate, polls clearly showed the former president as the favored candidate among GOP voters. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sat in second place — packaging himself as the alternative to Trump — but steadily decreased as the debate drew closer.
GOP Debate Heats Up
For the few remaining DeSantis supporters, the governor's performance fell flat, as he let many of his competitors steal the spotlight. Apparent rising star of the GOP Vivek Ramaswamy referred to DeSantis as a “super PAC puppet," holding the theme that his competitors were "bought and paid for."
The businessman, who has no political background, was also slammed by his opponents for his lack of experience. Former Vice President Mike Pence said of Ramaswamy: "We don't need to bring in a rookie, we don't need to bring in people without experience."
However, the former VP seemed to have less support in attendance than the up-and-comer, as his remarks were met with boos from the audience. That didn't stop former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from also firing a dig at Ramaswamy, who at one point said: "I've had enough, already tonight, of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here."
Despite his absence, Trump was a hot topic among the other candidates. Debate moderator Bret Baier referred to him as “the elephant not in the room," and the candidates were asked about the former president's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Christie said that Trump's conduct was beneath “the office of president," whereas Ramaswamy called him “the best president of the 21st century” and promised to pardon him if he is convicted in one of the several criminal cases against him. DeSantis, instead, only said that the Republican party needs to remain focused on the future.