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The candidates tried their best but there’s no show without Trump

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Donald TrumpFormer President Donald Trump

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  • Donald Trump was unmentioned for large stretches of Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate.
  • But it’s not clear that the former president lost anything by skipping the affair. 
  • A segment devoted to Trump’s indictments underlined his stranglehold on the party.

For almost an hour, America saw a Republican presidential primary debate without former President Donald Trump looks like. Then, they were reminded who the frontrunner really is.

A segment focused on the former president’s four indictments turned into a rollicking focus group that showcased his stranglehold on the GOP. In the end, skipping the affair may not end up as an undisputed win. But when you’re up by double-digits with less than six months before the Iowa caucuses, time is on your side.

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley took the first shot at Trump, arguing that his administration’s pursuit $2.2 trillion CARES Act during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was an example of how Republicans spend too much money.

“The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us; our Republicans did this to us, too,” Haley said. She added “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.”

—The Recount (@therecount) August 24, 2023

Haley’s barb at Trump, whose cabinet she served in, was one of the few exceptions to a night where Trump was rarely criticized and unmentioned during large stretches devoted to policy discussions. Other candidates who went after the former president more explicitly were greeted with a chorus of boos. The audience became so unsettled that moderator Bret Baier had to turn around to ask attendees to settle down.

“Booing is not aloud but it does not change the truth,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shot back. Christie said he couldn’t support Trump since the former president called for suspending the constitution.

The lack of attacks didn’t mean the praise was effusive, save for entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy went so far as to declare Trump “the greatest president of the 21st century” during a discussion of the historic indictments against him.

Trump declared on Sunday night that he would not show up for the first major evening in the GOP nomination contest. Instead, the former president recorded an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that was posted just five minutes before the debate began.

“I just felt it would be more appropriate not to the debate,” Trump told Carlson during a 46-minute interview posted on Twitter. “I don’t think it’s right to do it. If you’re leading by 50, 60, — in one poll I’m leading by 70 points —and I’m saying why I am doing it?”

Trump has even hinted that he might not show up at any of the primary debates. The next one is scheduled for September 27, just over a month from now at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Trump has repeatedly attacked former Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, chairman of the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. 

Wednesday night might prove that Trump doesn’t have much to lose.

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