The two-hour televised debate, the first held by Republicans in this election cycle, featured spirited exchanges about what one of the moderators called "the elephant who is not in the room" – the absent party front-runner, former President Donald Trump, who decided he is so far ahead in the polls he did not need to be on the stage.
Some of the contenders, such as Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, deemed Trump disqualified from serving again because of what they said was his disrespect for the Constitution, as well as the 91 felony counts he now faces.
Trump is set to surrender for arrest and booking in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday in connection with the fourth indictment, which accuses him of racketeering and interference in trying to upend his 2020 reelection loss in the southern state.
"The American people need to know that the president asked me to put him over the Constitution," demanding he refuse to oversee the congressional certification that Democrat Joe Biden had defeated Trump in the 2020 election, Pence told the audience in the Fiserv Forum.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley declared, "Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way."
However, political novice Vivek Ramaswamy, rising in the polls, stood by Trump, saying he believed he was "the best president of the 21st century."
Other Republican presidential contenders, while acknowledging Pence’s role on Jan. 6, 2021, in rejecting Trump’s demand to stop congressional certification of Biden’s victory, described the prosecution of Trump as the political weaponization of the Justice Department overseen by Biden.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared, "This election is not about January 6. We’ve got to focus on your future, look forward."
Only two of the eight candidates on the debate stage, Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, said they would not support Trump if he were convicted and still won the Republican presidential nomination.
Trump leads by about 40 percentage points over his closest Republican presidential challenger, DeSantis, with all the other Republican opponents getting less than 10% apiece in national polls.
Ramaswamy on Wednesday evening stood apart in questioning American support for Ukraine, saying China is a bigger threat to the United States than Russia. Several other candidates, including Haley, also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, expressed strong support for Ukraine in defending itself against Russian forces.
Others on the debate stage were South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
All of the candidates said they favored restrictions on U.S. abortion rights but differed on the details, such as at what gestational number of weeks it ought to be banned. Last year’s Supreme Court decision upended a nearly 50-year right to the procedure in the U.S., leaving it up to the 50 states to decide whether to allow abortions or severely restrict them.
Ramaswamy, the youngest of the candidates at 38, claimed at one point, "It’s going to take an outsider" to create "a vision of what it means to be an American."
Pence retorted, "Now is not the time for on-the-job training."
After the debate, Pence told reporters no one should have been surprised by his vigor on the debate stage.
"I was the leading champion of conservative values in the Trump-Pence administration. I know how to fight and I was happy to bring that fight tonight," said the former vice president.
Pence’s primary sparring opponent of the evening, Ramaswamy, said he relished the verbal barrages directed at him.
"Mike Pence coming at me with the experience differential, I think that’s a great thing because I don’t think the people in this country are interested in going back to people who recite slogans they memorized in 1980," said Ramaswamy.
"There’s a lot of people who had a good night tonight," according to Sean Spicer, who was Donald Trump’s first White House press secretary. "But does that good night move a needle? We’re going to find out really soon."
Spicer, speaking to VOA in the post-debate "spin room," said DeSantis and Haley had a good night while Ramaswamy "landed a bunch of good hits" but it remains to be seen "whether that was a good strategy or was he too aggressive?"
Spicer, who now hosts his own digital TV political show, added that none of the other candidates "had a bad night."
"The rest of them were fine. I just don’t know that any of them landed a punch that’s going to move the needle," he said.
The Republicans hold their second debate next month in California but only one of the candidates will be back on the same stage in Wisconsin in July to accept the party’s nomination.