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GOP presidential contenders, minus Donald Trump, meet in primary debate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Eight candidates - none of them Donald Trump - met in Milwaukee and debated who among them should be the Republican nominee for president. They are all trailing Trump by double digits. And so all eight tried to make their mark. A newcomer, Vivek Ramaswamy, drew enthusiasm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: It's going to take an outsider because for a long time, we had professional politicians in the Republican Party who have been running from something. Now is our moment to start running to something, to our vision of what it means to be an American today.

FADEL: Veteran GOP contender Chris Christie - the opposite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: 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.

FADEL: Christie was, of course, referring to the four-times-indicted former President Donald Trump. And instead of joining the debate, Trump put on his own show with an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I'm saying, do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it's going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that? And a network that isn't particularly friendly to me, frankly.

FADEL: Joining us now is Mark Leibovich, a staff writer at The Atlantic. He's in Milwaukee and was at the debate, and he joins us now. Good morning.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So you were at last night's debate, and you've made pretty clear in your writings in The Atlantic that you weren't expecting much from a group of candidates largely unwilling to go against Trump, who is their stiffest competition. So what did you think of the debate as you watched it in person last night? Is it what you expected?

LEIBOVICH: Pretty much it was what I expected as far as - I don't think the needle was moved as far as the dynamics of the race. I don't think Trump was hurt terribly, except that he wasn't really mentioned that much. I kind of expected there to be more of an opportunity for the candidates to speak critically or supportively about him. His name didn't come up as much. I mean, I guess what was striking to me was Vivek Ramaswamy and all of the attention he got and garnered. And, frankly, he just, you know, dominated so much of the stage in a way that I think left a lot of the other candidates trying to kind of scramble to get the oxygen that he already had.

FADEL: So what does that mean for these candidates? I mean, they're trailing Trump by double digits.

LEIBOVICH: Right.

FADEL: After last night's debate, does anything change for them?

LEIBOVICH: I don't think so. I think Ramaswamy probably will get a little bit of a bump. I think Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, acquitted herself quite well. I think many people - she wasn't - didn't get a lot of advance notice. A lot of people weren't sort of looking at her as a key player in the debate. I think she really did stick out. I think she probably gave the most - both a spirited critique of Donald Trump, which I think might have been a surprise to people, but also she stood up, I thought, pretty stoutly to Ramaswamy and acquitted herself quite well.

FADEL: Now, you said Trump wasn't mentioned as much as you expected, but was his absence felt? I mean, how did it weigh last night in the debate?

LEIBOVICH: I think his absence was palpable. I think, you know, even when, you know, he's not the topic of discussion, he is the, to use the cliche, the elephant in the room. And, you know, he's not just ahead by double digits. He's up by high double digits at this point.

FADEL: Yeah.

LEIBOVICH: I mean, the dynamic of the race is extremely weighted towards him, and especially if he's not there. I mean, it's going to really be very glaring.

FADEL: But if any of these candidates want to be president and be the Republican nominee, they have to first beat Trump. But other than Chris Christie, a vocal critic of Trump who was booed when he did make that criticism last night, we saw others defend him, like Vivek Ramaswamy. I mean, how are they supposed to win if there is no criticism of their main opponent?

LEIBOVICH: You know, that is the question. I mean, I think what was most jarring to me, and I think to a lot of viewers, and just had a real psychological effect on the performance was every time someone mentioned Trump critically, you were always going to hear, like, a pretty loud chorus of boos from the audience. And that has a real chilling effect. I mean, it definitely - no matter how you prepare for a debate or what you anticipate in advance, it definitely shapes the dynamic of what you're watching. You could even tell in sort of looking at Christie when he was getting off some of his sharper lines that, you know, he was not cringing a bit, but clearly he was not as, I think, emphatic as he usually is. So I think that, to me, tells the whole story.

FADEL: And in the last few seconds, I mean, Trump's decision to sit this one out and do his own thing, how do you think that plays for him in his campaign?

LEIBOVICH: I don't think it hurts him at all. I think - look, I think he's playing not to lose at this point. He has a great lead. And I don't see this really changing things to his decision last night.

FADEL: Mark Leibovich is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Thank you.

LEIBOVICH: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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