A creepy attempt at a smile by Ron DeSantis has emerged as the biggest viral moment from Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events for the Florida Governor, who has faded in polls after previously being touted as a serious rival to former President Donald Trump.

The sight of Mr DeSantis, 44, forcing out an awkward half-smile at the end of an applause line — “and I will not let you down!” — has quickly become a meme online, with clips of the moment generating millions of views.

“Me right before letting everyone down,” one Twitter user wrote.

“Suddenly I’m 100 per cent on board with the lizard people conspiracy,” another said.

“He’s malfunctioning already,” a third said.

“Analog horror has come a long way look at that smile,” another wrote.

It’s not the first time Mr DeSantis’ forced mannerisms and awkward delivery have been mocked by critics.

Journalist Megyn Kelly, giving her assessment of the different candidates, wrote, “DeSantis is strong on substance but his smile thing after the answers feels odd.”

Speaking to the NY Post, former FBI agent and body language expert Joe Navarro said the Florida Governor, who was the first to speak, also appeared the most nervous.

“His lips quivered,” Mr Navarro said.

“He also looked almost angry. His voice was forceful and lacked modulation, which made it hard for viewers to distinguish his most important points.”

Mr DeSantis also failed to smile, Mr Navarro said, which “may not have communicated likability” but underscored his seriousness about key issues.

“His glabella (the space between your eyebrows) furrowed, which along with his emphatic hand gestures expressed his concern,” the former FBI agent surmised.

Meanwhile, the one small grin Mr DeSantis flashed at the end of the night “could make a difference” for on-the-fence supporters, he said.

Absent Trump looms large

Eight Republican presidential candidates sparred Wednesday over immigration, the economy and abortion in the first debate of the 2024 US election cycle — but the spotlight was still stolen by Mr Trump even as he boycotted the showdown.

The former President’s snubbing of the two-hour Milwaukee event deprived a chasing pack of rivals, whom he leads by massive margins in polls, of the opportunity to direct shots at him live on stage.

Instead he gave a recorded interview with former Fox News star Tucker Carlson that was posted online minutes before the debate got underway.

But Mr Trump loomed over the debate, with his multiple prosecutions the subject of questions from the Fox News hosts moderating the event.

Candidates were asked to signal if they would support Mr Trump as the party’s nominee even if he is convicted in one of the criminal cases he is facing.

Every candidate raised their hand except Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who waved his finger.

“Here’s the bottom line. Someone’s got to stop normalising this conduct, OK?” Mr Christie said, drawing loud boos from the audience.

“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,” he added.

Mr Hutchinson earned more jeers when he said, “Obviously, I’m not going to support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony.”

Mr Trump will surrender to authorities in Atlanta on Thursday over his fourth indictment of the year, for an alleged criminal conspiracy to steal the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.

Mr Trump said during his Carlson interview that it did not make sense for him to take part in the debate as he was so far ahead in the polls — more than 40 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

He called Mr Biden the “worst president in the history of our country” and suggested that the 80-year-old president may not be the Democratic candidate come election day in November 2024.

Mr Trump also dismissed his four criminal indictments calling them “trivia, nonsense”.

Fierce debate, noisy clashes

The debate moderators opened with a question on hit song ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’, about working class alienation, prompting Mr Trump’s closest rival, Mr DeSantis, to warn that the country is “in decline”.

“This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice,” he said.

Mr DeSantis also talked about his record on keeping Florida open during the Covid crisis, earning a cheer when he discussed how he would have fired government scientist Anthony Fauci.

With a seismic shift needed to dethrone Mr Trump, the debate offered a showcase for candidates angling to be Mr Trump’s running mate.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, spoke often and jumped into clashes as he sought to make an impact — as well as perhaps make a case for a role in any future Trump administration.

Mr Trump’s vice president Mike Pence said he was the “best prepared” candidate for office, but was booed during an exchange with Mr Ramaswamy for calling the political newcomer a “rookie”.

Mr Ramaswamy described himself as “the only person on stage who is not bought and paid for”, earning a slapdown from Mr Christie, who complained he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT”.

The candidates equivocated on climate change, railed against street crime and supported curbs on abortion access — an issue that polarises America, with Mr Pence rebuking former UN ambassador Nikki Haley over her call for “consensus” on the issue.

Mr DeSantis was asked whether Mr Pence was right to certify the results of the 2020 election, which Mr Trump claims falsely was stolen, and said that “Mike did his duty — I have no beef with him”.

But he added, “This election is not about January 6th of 2021. It’s about January 20th of 2025, when the next president is going to take office.”

Mr DeSantis stayed out of the fray for much of the evening, but was at his most passionate advocating for the use of “lethal force” to curb illegal immigration.

“When these drug pushers are bringing fentanyl across the border, that’s going to be the last thing they do,” he said.

“We’re going to leave them stone cold dead.”

The Biden campaign bought expensive ad slots on Fox News and its website before the debate, while the President said he would watch as much of the event “as I can”.

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