What a Few Seconds of Hand Raising Said About Trump’s G.O.P.

It was a moment the eight Republican candidates on the stage in Milwaukee should have known was coming. Though the question took an hour to arrive, they still seemed unsteady in their response:

If Donald Trump is the party’s nominee for president as well as a convicted criminal, will they still support him?

Vivek Ramaswamy, the candidate who has clung closest to the front-runner, immediately raised his hand in the affirmative. He was followed quickly by Nikki Haley, who served as Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations; Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who helped Mr. Trump weather accusations of racism; and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who has been struggling to even be recognized as a candidate for president.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, once seen as the most formidable challenger to Mr. Trump, looked to his left, looked to his right and then raised his hand — after the four others had done so. Mike Pence, Mr. Trump’s vice president, then lifted his, clearly reluctantly.

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and the Trump ally-turned-enemy, appeared to raise his hand, too, in a halfhearted way, before wagging a finger; he later said he wasn’t answering the question but was simply seeking recognition to explain why he wouldn’t support a convicted Mr. Trump. Another Trump critic, Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, kept his hands locked at his sides.

The answers — and the way they were given — provided one of the most memorable tableaus of the first debate of the Republican primary season. The 17-second exchange showed how completely Mr. Trump’s shadow lingers over the Republican Party and its electorate, which has been unwilling to abandon the former president and has turned hostile to anyone who does.

The former president stands accused criminally in four cases, including on charges of trying to subvert the will of the American people to steal an election that he lost.

As grave as those accusations are, many members of the audience who gathered in Milwaukee, the largest city in one of the country’s most politically contested states, cheered loudly as, one by one, hands rose in fealty to their quadruply indicted champion, a day before he was to turn himself in at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta for fingerprinting and a mug shot.

The responses of each candidate demonstrated the different approaches the would-be heirs to the last Republican president have taken toward him, even though he is now a competitor they are ostensibly seeking to defeat.

Those clinging tight, like Mr. Ramaswamy, want to be in position to scoop up the former president’s loyal followers, should forces other than Mr. Trump’s primary rivals remove him from the contest — say, a conviction and a prison sentence.

Even Ms. Haley, who went on to call her former boss “the most disliked politician in America,” could not bring herself to refuse to support him.

Mr. DeSantis appeared to check out of the corner of his eye where his competitors were on the issue before committing, and then withdrew from the discussion, as he did for much of the debate.

Mr. Pence, perhaps listening to the crowd, raised his hand, but a few minutes later he went on to use the discussion to remind the audience that he had stood up to Mr. Trump and certified the lawful election of President Biden in 2020.

The hand-raising moment illustrated the high-wire act that is Mr. Pence’s campaign — embracing Trumpism, while distancing himself from it.

It was left to Mr. Christie, who nearly died from a case of Covid-19 he contracted from Mr. Trump, to assert his voice as the repentant Republican. He then battled with Mr. Ramaswamy, Mr. Trump’s heir, ideologically and stylistically.

“Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct, OK?” Mr. Christie pleaded, as audience members began to boo. “And now, 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.”

Mr. Ramaswamy replied, “Chris Christie, honest to God, your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign were not based on vengeance and grievance against one man.”

Mr. Christie tried to jab back in his patented, belittling way, a style that in 2016 made mincemeat of opponents like Senator Marco Rubio when it was delivered in service of Mr. Trump. “You make me laugh,” he told Mr. Ramaswamy.

Alas, Mr. Christie had to pause his riposte. The audience was booing too loudly.

Jonathan Weisman is a Chicago-based political correspondent, veteran journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years. More about Jonathan Weisman

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