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Some time on Thursday, Donald Trump’s police mugshot will hit the internet and probably go viral. At that point, what little Republicans might recall from the party’s presidential debate on Wednesday night is likely to be erased.
Trump was the ghost at the banquet, refusing to appear on stage with what he called “losers”. Since he is polling more than the other candidates combined, their job was to take him down or make him less relevant. They made no inroads in either task.
To be fair to the rest, including the ever-shrinking candidacy of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, they face an almost impossible dilemma. It is hard enough to differentiate yourself from Trump without alienating his base, a large chunk of which they need to win over. It turns out to be even harder when he is not there.
The Fox News moderators asked all eight candidates present whether they would support Trump as the Republican nominee if he were sent to jail. All but one — former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson — raised their hands. DeSantis checked others’ response before raising his.
The underperformer of the night was Chris Christie, who has based his case on goading Trump to debate with him. Lacking Trump’s presence, Christie’s logical next target would have been DeSantis, who is running a distant second to the former president.
But Christie failed to land any blows on DeSantis and said nothing memorable about Trump. At least Christie and Hutchinson are explicitly making the case that Trump should not be the nominee. Unfortunately for Christie, the loudest noise he elicited on Wednesday came from boos.
DeSantis continues to duck opportunities to attack Trump and overcompensates by sounding especially fierce on everything else. The Florida governor on Wednesday said he would send US special forces across the Mexican border to kill drug traffickers “stone dead” on “day one”. This is the first instance I can recall of a presidential candidate vowing to go to war on their first day in office. The meeker DeSantis sounds on Trump, the more he plays macho on everything else. So far that tactic is not working.
Since none of Trump’s rivals are prepared to tackle him directly or, in Christie’s and Hutchinson’s case, yet to do so effectively, the natural conclusion is to view such debates as auditions to be his vice-presidential running mate.
In that shadow contest, Vivek Ramaswamy, the self-made almost-billionaire, was the least subtle on Wednesday. Not only was he the first to raise his hand on backing a convicted Trump, he also pledged to pardon him on day one for any convictions.
Were this a normal Republican party it would be worth dwelling on the fact that Ramaswamy, the only millennial in the race, also said climate change was a “hoax”. But larger realities intrude. His Trumpian style alienated everyone else on stage but doubtless raised his odds of being Trump’s running mate.
Since it gets ever easier nowadays to acclimatise to political freakishness, it bears emphasising that the Republican frontrunner faces 91 counts across four criminal cases, each of which could land him in jail. His most recent charges, in Georgia, will be the first to yield that elusive mugshot, which Trump will no doubt convert into high-yielding merchandise.
It is also worth pointing out that while Fox’s debate was airing, the former Fox host, Tucker Carlson, ran a competing interview with Trump, which almost certainly got higher traffic.
At one point, Carlson asked Trump whether his indictments could lead to civil war. “I can say this, there’s a level of passion I’ve never seen. There’s a level of hatred I’ve never seen, and that’s probably a bad combination,” the former president responded. When asked if his enemies might be prepared to kill him, Trump said: “They’re savage animals. They’re people that are sick.”
It is hard for Trump’s rivals to compete with this. As the saying goes, when you strike at the king, you must kill him. On Wednesday, none of Trump’s rivals even drew blood.