The first Republican debate of the 2024 US election campaign got underway on Wednesday night.
But as eight candidates took to the stage Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it was the frontrunner who shunned the televised clash for a fireside interview instead.
A cosy chat among two men feared by many
by Mark Stone, US correspondent
It was a decision most politicians would make. When you are so far ahead in the polls, why bother turning up to a debate with the rest of the pack?
Why, then, should Donald Trump risk two hours in the thick of it with them?
And so, instead, with a Trumpian masterstroke he sat down for a pre-recorded conversation with his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend-again Tucker Carlson published online at the moment the main debate went on air.
There were no hardballs or curveballs. It was, literally in fact, a cosy fireside chat.
Much of it consisted of two men agreeing with each other – about the “radical left”, about “imperialist China”, about “crooked Joe Biden”, about an “open border”, about “a stolen election” – all subjects about which much of America’s right is deeply concerned.
A few sections stood out.
Carlson asked Trump: “Why wouldn’t they try and kill you?” referring to the Democrats.
Trump replied: “Honestly, they’re savage animals.”
Then Carlson asked: “Do you think we’re moving towards civil war?”
Trump said: “There’s tremendous passion, and there’s tremendous love…” referencing the January 6 2021 protests at the Capitol in Washington.
“I have never seen such spirit and such passion and such love. And I’ve also never seen simultaneously and from the same people such hatred of what they’ve done to our country.”
Carlson and Trump: two men whose aligned rhetoric is as feared by so many in this country as it is believed by so many others.
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Debate failed to establish a natural contender for Trump
By James Matthews, US correspondent
Did anyone make up ground on Donald Trump? On the question of the night, the answer is probably not.
There is more to Republican politics than Trump and we saw a lot of it last night.
But what we didn’t see from the eight candidates who were on stage was the emergence of a natural contender for the one who wasn’t there.
For all the talk of Ron DeSantis and his need to re-ignite an ailing campaign, debate night wasn’t the night for it.
Centre-stage as the challenger-in-chief, there was no hiding the charisma deficit. On politics per se, he played a steady hand without the change in strategy on the big competition issue – how to handle Trump.
He raised his hand when asked if he would still support him should he be convicted, but didn’t give a definitive answer when asked if former vice-president Mike Pence was right to certify the results of the 2020 election.
It was an opportunity to break with Trump – the fact that DeSantis declined reflects the reach of the rival out in front.
The prevailing view on the debate stage appears, still, to be that there’s too much to lose by criticising the former president – better to stay aligned, hope that someone or something else will take him down and that loyalty will be rewarded in decanted votes.
It is the gamble that hasn’t paid out so far – too early, perhaps, to make the ‘stick or twist’ call.
Nikki Haley was widely regarded as having had a good debate. The former US ambassador to the United Nations asserted a gravitas that was lacking in others.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the business entrepreneur railing, Trump-style, against the political establishment was eye-catching and will derive a recognition bounce.
In the party of Donald Trump, however, recognition is relative. And, for the eight candidates on stage, relatively low.