All eight Republicans onstage had to sign a pledge that they would support the party’s eventual nominee — even if it ends up being the man who skipped the debate and in doing so refused to make such a promise himself.
Throughout the night, Mr. Trump was something of a spectral presence — not there, yet omnipresent.
While Mr. Christie and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas criticized him from the wings of the stage, no one fully took advantage of the front-runner’s absence.
“I’m incredibly proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration,” Mr. Pence said at one point. Mr. Ramaswamy called Mr. Trump the greatest president this century.
Most candidates stood with Mr. Pence for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he stood up to Mr. Trump’s pressure to overturn the 2020 election. But few leaned into the topic. “We’ve answered this so many times,” Mr. DeSantis protested, before eventually relenting. “Mike did his duty; I’ve got no beef with him.”
It all amounted to a relatively warm embrace for the candidate running laps around them in polls, and an evening that seemed unlikely to upset the status quo in a race that Mr. Trump has dominated.
Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.