One thing was clear when former President Donald J. Trump decided to skip the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary race: There would be a vacuum to fill.
But it was not Mr. Trump’s chief rival in the polls, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who emerged at the epicenter of the first Trump-free showdown on Wednesday, but instead the political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, whose unlikely rise has revealed the remarkable degree to which the former president has remade the party.
Mr. DeSantis had stumbled heading into the debate and was widely seen as in need of a stabilizing performance. He sought it by largely avoiding the scrum and sticking closely to the core case he makes on the stump, hoping to gain incremental ground in front of a national audience.