Republican contenders clashed on stage at their first 2024 presidential debate, as they vied to displace the absent frontrunner Donald Trump.
Eight rivals took to the stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to brawl over issues from Ukraine to abortion.
While most were reluctant to attack Mr Trump, some of the hopefuls did take aim at the no-show former president.
The eventual winner will challenge the Democratic candidate, probably President Joe Biden, in November 2024.
On stage in the Fox News primetime showdown on Wednesday night were Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice-President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
Mr DeSantis – who is struggling to hold on to a distant second place as the early promise of his campaign stutters – vowed more than once to “send Biden back to his basement”.
But although he occupied centre stage, the Florida governor struggled for the spotlight during the two-hour forum against rising star Vivek Ramaswamy, a billionaire political newcomer.
“Do you want a super PAC puppet,” the 38-year-old son of Indian immigrants said, “or a patriot who speaks the truth?”
Mr Pence – a veteran debater – targeted Mr Ramaswamy’s lack of experience, declaring: “Now is not the time for on-the-job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”
Mr Christie also derided Mr Ramaswamy as an “amateur”, and said he sounded like a chatbot.
As the candidates squabbled at one point, Ms Haley cut in: “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.'”
The debate exposed divisions within the party on support for Ukraine and abortion rights.
Most of the candidates pledged to back Ukraine in its war with Russia.
But Mr Ramaswamy mocked “professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv to their pope Zelenksy”.
Ms Haley assailed Mr Ramaswamy’s isolationist stance, saying: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows!”
There was also a clash on whether pregnancy terminations could be restricted nationwide.
Ms Haley – the only woman on stage – said it was wrong to “make women feel like they have to decide on this issue” when Republicans lack the Senate votes to pass such a measure.
Mr Pence hit back that that was the “opposite of leadership”.
The candidates were asked by debate moderators if they would support Mr Trump should he become the Republican nominee.
Two of the eight on stage – Mr Christie and Mr Hutchinson – did not raise their hands.
Mr Christie was booed and cheered as he said: “The conduct [of Mr Trump] is beneath the office of president of the United States.”
Mr Hutchinson drew increasingly loud boos as he said Mr Trump was “disqualified” from the White House.
Mr Trump did not participate in the debate, citing his dominance in the race. He instead recorded an interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson, which aired online at the same time in a bid to upstage the televised showdown.
The former president said he felt no need to be “harassed” by lesser rivals, in an interview which garnered 100 million views, according to X, formerly known as Twitter.
In the spin room after the debate, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the former president had won despite his absence and that Mr DeSantis’ performance marked “the beginning of the end” for the Florida governor.
The debate took place just hours before Mr Trump will travel to Georgia to be arrested on charges of plotting to subvert the 2020 election results in that state.
Despite his legal troubles, Mr Trump leads the Republican race on 62% – way more than all his rivals combined, according to an opinion poll released on Sunday by the BBC’s US partner CBS News.
Mr DeSantis trails in second place on 16%. Mr Ramaswamy was third on 7%.
Mr Trump, 77, was also running neck-and-neck in a hypothetical matchup with Mr Biden, according to a Quinnipiac University opinion poll last week. It found 47% of respondents supported Mr Biden, while 46% backed Mr Trump.
At one debate-watch party in Atlanta, Georgia, about 100 young Republican voters took stock of the contenders.
Richard Polk, 33, thought Mr Trump was a good president, but “gets in his own way”.
Ashlee Jackson, an independent voter from the area, felt the candidates should offer fewer platitudes and more details on their policy positions.
The next Republican debate takes place in Simi Valley, California, on 27 September.
Voters will begin choosing their candidate in state-by-state elections known as primaries this January, with the first taking place in Iowa.
The eventual Republican nominee will be crowned at the party convention, also in Milwaukee, in July, before the general election four months later.