It took nearly an hour and two commercial breaks on Wednesday before the Fox News moderators turned the debate to the absent front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump.
“We are going to take a brief moment and talk about the elephant not in the room,” Bret Baier, one of the moderators, finally said, asking the candidates to raise their hands if they would support Mr. Trump if he were the Republican nominee. Only Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, the former governors of New Jersey and Arkansas, did not answer affirmatively.
Those in the crowd in the debate hall made it clear — through cheers for those who said they would support Mr. Trump and boos for those who said they wouldn’t — which side they stood on.
Mr. Christie, in a confusing moment, raised his hand but made a waving motion, indicating that he would not support Mr. Trump and then delivering an indictment of his behavior. He was drowned out by boos, fueled by a retort from Mr. Ramaswamy.
“Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct,” Mr. Christie 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.”
Mr. Ramaswamy jumped in. “Honest to God, your claim that Donald Trump is motivated by vengeance and grievance would be a lot more credible if your entire campaign wasn’t motivated by vengeance and grievance against one man,” he said.
He was met with resounding cheers.
When Mr. Christie tried to answer — telling Mr. Ramaswamy, “You make me laugh” — the jeering was so loud that he had to pause twice. Eventually, Mr. Baier stepped in and reprimanded the crowd.
Once decorum had returned, the moderators pivoted to Vice President Mike Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he affirmed the results of the 2020 election. They asked the candidates if Mr. Pence had done the right thing.
“Absolutely,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said. But he quickly pivoted to claiming the Justice Department had been politically weaponized.
On that issue, nearly every candidate agreed, though Mr. Christie again sought to put the focus on Mr. Trump.
“The argument that we need to have in this party, before we can move on to the issues that Ron talked about, is we have to dispense with the person who said that we need to suspend the Constitution to put forward his political career,” he said.
The moderators gave Mr. Pence the final word.
“I chose the Constitution, and I always will,” he said.