An arrest spectacle Trump’s rivals don’t want to see

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Donald Trump’s rivals agreed Wednesday that Republicans should look past the former president.

But the iconic image of the week will be his fourth arrest this year, this time at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta. Many of his alleged co-conspirators have had mug shots released.

Talking about Trump was a chore for many on the stage at the first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Get this over with

“The more time we spend doing this, the less time they can talk about issues you want to talk about,” Bret Baier, one of the Fox News moderators, told the debate audience in an effort to quiet their booing of the anti-Trump former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“So, let’s just get through this section,” Baier told them.

Christie had been trying to argue “someone’s got to stop normalizing” Trump’s conduct. But he was interrupted by the booing and also by Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur and political neophyte who declared Trump “the best president of the 21st century.”

Is that even a compliment?

Note: Ramaswamy made it sound like a massive compliment, but that’s really only four presidents, two of whom are Democrats and one of whom is George W. Bush, who barely feels like he would fit into today’s GOP.

Plus, I cannot figure out how Ramaswamy will pivot from his lavish praise for Trump to convincing the former president’s supporters to back him instead.

Where’s the beef?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis initially tried to dodge a question on if he agreed that then-Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing by not obeying Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election results.

“Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him,” was the highest praise DeSantis would allow for Pence’s profile in courage.

Most will accept a possible convict in the White House

Pence – despite asking the other candidates to give him credit for standing up to Trump by not violating the Constitution on January 6, 2021 – was also among the majority of candidates who raised their hands as being willing to support Trump as the eventual Republican nominee, even if he is convicted in one of the four criminal cases against him.

Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican who took a pass on running for president, said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Thursday that the pledge to support Trump, even if convicted, was the low point of the debate.

“For six people to raise their hand and say I would put a convicted felon in the White House, it’s just beyond comprehension,” he said.

Can’t look away

The magic trick for the Republicans who are running for president will be to make the election about something other than Trump, who views the campaign as his moment for redemption.

Four successive trials of the century, two of which deal with an alleged effort to undo the democracy itself, aren’t the kind of thing anyone can ignore.

But DeSantis argued during the debate that if the next election is about the insurrection, Republicans could lose next year.

“We have got to look forward, and we have got to make sure that we’re bringing the message that can win in November of 2024,” DeSantis said.

The generational shift argument

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was also looking to the future.

“We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” she said. “We can’t win a general election that way.”

She shined in several moments, such as when she called out fellow Republicans for contributing to the national debt or pointed out the impossibility of passing a nationwide abortion ban.

But contra her call for a generational shift, she made Ramaswamy look like a school boy when she sliced through his provocative calls for the US to adopt a neutral position toward Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and to withdraw support for Israel.

The Trump-free debate stage will soon be forgotten

The Republican campaign adviser and CNN contributor Scott Jennings, no fan of Trump, summed things up after the debate for CNN Opinion:

The question is: Did anyone move a single Trump voter from his column to theirs? I am dubious. And as long as all of these people stay in the race, the fragmentation will continue to protect his frontrunner status.

On Thursday, Trump is expected to turn himself in to the proper authorities in Georgia. And I suspect we’ll see more footage on television of his motorcade than any of the zingers or conflict that defined Wednesday’s debate.

A focus on Ramaswamy, who tried to sound like Trump

The conflict at the debate largely revolved around Ramaswamy, who seemed to be playing the role of the absent Trump, with provocative statements and unconventional positions.

In that regard, even in his absence, Trump’s popularity among the party’s base loomed large despite the repeatedly expressed prediction that his campaign will ultimately handicap the party.

And so while the other Republican candidates are warning that his nomination will lead to the party’s defeat, there is no evidence that the party itself can yet quit him.

Where is Trump?

Trump skipped the debate, instead appearing in a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. He was also presumably getting ready to surrender to authorities in Georgia on Thursday.

The prosecutor, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, asked for Trump’s trial to begin October 23, an aggressive schedule that legal experts suggested on CNN would be hard to accomplish.

She also subpoenaed Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to testify in federal court as she fights an attempt by one of Trump’s alleged co-conspirators, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, to move the Georgia case to federal court.

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