Home » Republican Candidates Split Over Donald Trump, Abortion and Ukraine at Debate

Republican Candidates Split Over Donald Trump, Abortion and Ukraine at Debate

GOP divisions laid bare as former US president skips event in favour of social media interview.

Donald Trump cast a long shadow over the first Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday night, as eight of his rivals sparred over his mounting legal woes while the former president skipped the event in favour of an interview on social media.

The live televised debate and Trump’s pretaped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, formerly Twitter, came a day before the former US president plans to surrender to authorities in Georgia, where he faces criminal charges relating to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump’s rivals have been wary of directly attacking the former president, who remains the undisputed frontrunner in the crowded field. But the debate erupted when the topic of Trump’s behaviour was raised.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the young biotech entrepreneur who dominated many of the debate’s most contentions moments, rushed to defend the indicted ex-president. Others were divided.

“Someone has to stop normalising this conduct . . . the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” said former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, prompting boos from the crowd of Republican voters.

“We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” said former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. “We can’t win a general election that way.”

The debate moderators pressed the candidates on whether they thought former vice-president Mike Pence had done the “right thing” on January 6 2021, when he certified Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory after mobs of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis dodged the question repeatedly, before snapping: “Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him. But here’s the thing: is this what we are going to be focusing on going forward? The rehashing of this?”

Trump faces more than a dozen criminal charges in Georgia, in addition to three other looming criminal trials in Manhattan, Miami and Washington.

In his interview with Carlson — posted to X just minutes before the debate began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — Trump reiterated his false claims that the 2020 election had been “rigged” against him, and mused that he could be the target of political violence, saying: “I’ve seen what they do. I’ve seen the lengths that they go to.”

Five of the Republican candidates on the debate stage — DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley, South Carolina senator Tim Scott and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum — raised their hands when asked whether they would support Trump if he were the party’s nominee and convicted of a crime.

The other three — Christie, Pence and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson — did not. The latest FiveThirtyEight average of national polls shows Trump enjoys the support of just over half of Republican voters, while DeSantis trails in a distant second place, on 14 per cent, and the remaining candidates trail in the single digits.

The debate moderators also quizzed the candidates on where to draw the line on abortion restrictions, and whether they would support more federal funding for Ukraine’s war effort.

The candidates were split on abortion. Pence and Scott said they would support a federal abortion ban for pregnancies after 15 weeks, while DeSantis and Hutchinson hesitated to say whether they would sign stricter federal abortion restrictions.

Haley warned that pushing for a federal abortion ban would be a political disaster for the Republican party, which came up short in last year’s midterm elections after the overturning of Roe vs Wade, which scrapped the federal right to an abortion and handed the issue back to state governments.

“It is in the hands of the people and that’s where it should be,” Haley said.

“No Republican president can ban abortion . . . don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue.” Ramaswamy, who entered the debate under heightened scrutiny after comments this week suggesting that the US government could have been involved in the 9/11 attacks, came under fire repeatedly.

In one tense exchange, Pence, 64, clashed with the 38-year-old entrepreneur, saying he was too young and inexperienced for the White House. “Now is not the time for on the job training,” said Pence, who was governor of Indiana and a member of Congress before becoming vice-president. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

Ramaswamy was the only candidate who said outright that he would not support additional funds for Ukraine, saying “Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America”.

That drew a rebuke from Haley, who criticised him for his lack of foreign policy experience and for choosing Russian president Vladimir Putin over the US’s interests.

“This guy is a murderer and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-democracy country,” she said. Christie also took aim at Ramaswamy, who has risen in the polls in recent weeks, saying: “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.”