The first Republican debate was defined by Donald Trump, who skipped it

By the time you read this, the news cycle may have already moved on to anticipating former President Donald Trump’s surrender in Georgia Thursday on charges that he sought to overturn the 2020 election results. And that has been the problem all along for the Republicans challenging him for the 2024 nomination.

Eight candidates took to the debate stage Wednesday night in what might have been the most substantive policy debate that Republicans, who did not have an official national platform in 2020, have engaged in publicly for quite a while. But none of that really mattered given that Trump, offscreen at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, is the runaway frontrunner in the polls, and the party’s identity has become all but indistinguishable from the former president himself.

[Related: All the candidates onstage for the first GOP debate, explained]

That much was obvious when Fox News host Bret Baier asked the candidates — who signed a loyalty pledge to the eventual GOP nominee as a condition of participating in the debate — to address the “elephant not in the room.” He told them to raise their hand if they would still back Trump as the party’s choice if he is convicted in any of the four separate criminal cases against him.

At first, four candidates raised their hands. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s former protégé running a distant second, looked around to see what everyone else did before raising his own. Trump’s estranged former Vice President Mike Pence hesitated but followed. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose candidacy is pretty much based on taking down Trump, wagged his finger.

“Here’s the bottom line. Someone’s got to stop normalizing this conduct,” he said. “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”

Christie was met with boos so overwhelming that the moderators had to lecture the crowd. “Let’s just get through this section,” Baier pleaded.

No other candidate was willing to go as far, though former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also did not raise his hand. Pence defended his decision to certify the election results over Trump’s wishes on January 6, 2021, if only out of necessity: “He asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution.” In addition to Christie, another four candidates concurred that Pence upheld his oath of office that day, but then digressed from the topic to issues they felt to be more important, from the weaponization of law enforcement to China. “Is this what we’re going to be focusing on going forward? The rehashing of this?” DeSantis asked.

But whether DeSantis likes it or not, the charges against Trump have become the defining issue of the primary. His legal troubles and court appearances, which will likely continue throughout the campaign given that prosecutors are seeking speedy trials ahead of the 2024 election, have consumed media oxygen and millions of his campaign funds. DeSantis’s first big mainstream media interview on CNN, for instance, was a footnote next to Trump’s announcement on Truth Social that he expected to be charged by federal prosecutors for his involvement in the January 6 insurrection. (That indictment did later come, and is arguably the most serious of those levied against him.)

[Related: Trump’s 4 indictments, ranked by the stakes]

But fearing the sway Trump has over the base, his opponents still cower at the prospect of addressing the charges or speaking out against him — or may even genuinely agree that he is the victim of a “political witch hunt.” The former president’s lead in the polls has grown to more than 40 points on average since the four indictments against him dropped. An August CBS News/YouGov poll showed that 77 percent of likely GOP primary voters believed the charges were politically motivated; only 8 percent said that he tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

This debate should have presented a golden opportunity for a serious challenger to Trump, who had no means of defending himself because he opted not to participate. But instead of turning on Trump, most of the candidates turned on each other in sometimes raucous fashion, leaving little room for anyone to emerge as a true winner. In so doing, they reinforced Trump’s iron grip on the party and the fiction he has spread about what happened on January 6 — the memory of which Republicans have been happy to muddy.