Seven Republican presidential hopefuls gathered at the Reagan Library in California on Wednesday for the second of the party’s primary debates. The contest’s dominant front-runner — former President Donald Trump — skipped the event again.
With less than four months until the Iowa caucuses officially jumpstart the GOP nomination process, the pressure is building on Trump’s rivals to show they can emerge as a genuine alternative.
Here are some takeaways from the debate:
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had an aggressive start, using his first answer to criticize Trump for skipping the debate and for adding to the national debt while serving as president.
“Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said. “He should be here on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.”
The Florida governor has been slow to attack Trump for most of the campaign. But as he’s struggled to make inroads against the former president, he’s started slowly sharpening his critiques of the man whose endorsement he once embraced.
With his position in the race at risk of stalling, DeSantis faced pressure to have a standout and aggressive performance Wednesday.
DeSantis seemed eager to jump in on a question after Trump was criticized by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made hammering Trump a focus of his campaign. DeSantis began speaking at the same time as another candidate and when finally given the floor, he used his answer to hit President Joe Biden and Trump in the same swipe, accusing them of lacking leadership.
DeSantis found an opportunity later in the debate to hit Trump on abortion, an area where he’s recently stepped up his attacks from the right.
DeSantis said Trump was wrong to blame the Republican Party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections on the overturning of national abortion rights.
“He should be here explaining his comments,” DeSantis said. “I want him to look into the eyes and tell people who’ve been fighting this fight for a long time.”
Instead of facing his rivals on the debate stage, Trump was in Michigan working to win over blue-collar voters in the midst of an autoworkers’ strike.
The debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library highlighted the way the GOP has drifted from some of the former president’s core values. One of them was highlighted right away — immigration.
A clip of the 40th president calling for “amnesty” for people in the country illegally preceded a question about immigration policy. Christie, who once represented a Democratic state and backed a similar proposal a decade ago, distanced himself from that, saying it was effectively ancient history.
“We’re no longer in a position to do that anymore,” Christie said, calling for “enforcing the law.”
Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a former South Carolina governor, went a step further, calling for an end to foreign aid to Latin America until the border is secured.
“Only when we fix the immigration system, only when we make the border secure should we ever put more money into this,” the former United Nations representative said.
The rightward shift on migration was percolating even before Trump’s presidential run began in 2015, but his victory the following year accelerated it. Even entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, also the son of Indian immigrants, jumped in to highlight his proposal to revoke U.S. citizenship for children born in the country to parents who are here illegally.
That’d require a constitutional amendment and has also been embraced by Trump, but it shows how far the modern GOP has drifted from Reagan.
Ramaswamy seemed to take pride in antagonizing his rivals during the first debate, declaring that “everyone on this stage is corrupt” except him because he was a political outsider, a biotech entrepreneur who wrote a book entitled “Woke, Inc.” and decided to run for president.
It got him attention, but also seemed to have gotten under the skins of not only his rivals, but GOP primary voters. Ramaswamy tried a kinder, gentler approach this time.
“These are good people on this stage,” he declared at the start of the debate. Later Ramaswamy repeatedly cited Reagan’s so-called “11th commandment” to never criticize another Republican.
He even tried a little humble pie. “I’m the new guy here so I know I have to earn your trust,” he told the crowd, saying he may seem “a bit of a know-it-all” but he’d be eager to listen to more experienced hands in the Oval Office.
He certainly didn’t defuse the tension onstage — Ramaswamy ended up at the bottom of a political dogpile again as candidates lined up to criticize him.
After delivering a somewhat underwhelming performance during the first debate, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott sought to more forcefully assert himself on Wednesday.
The only Black person on stage, Scott jumped on a question to DeSantis about revisions to Florida’s school curriculum that required teachers to instruct middle-school students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
After DeSantis defended the standards, Scott responded that “there is not a redeeming quality in slavery.”
The senator then tried to criticize both DeSantis and Vice President Kamala Harris, who is Black and of South Asian descent. Scott then gave a long answer defending America’s evolution and raised his voice in a crescendo, declaring, “America is not a racist country,” which drew applause.
The seven candidates onstage kept talking about what they would do when they become president. But there was little evidence any of them was trying to win that office.
The participants spent the two hours largely agreeing with each other on substance, but bickering over baroque bits of policy or history. Unless prompted, they didn’t bring up the man who is absolutely dominating the field, Trump.
The only exception was Christie, whose entire campaign is predicated on slamming the man whose two prior candidacies he supported. But even most of Christie’s barbs were about Trump’s debate dodging rather than trying to persuade Republican voters to end their love affair with the ex-president.
Still, he went further than just about anyone else in arguing against Trump, closing the debate by saying, “This man has not only divided our party, he’s divided families all over this country.”
That was just about the only thing that made any single candidate stand out. Otherwise they all sounded similar on most issues without staking out any distinct ground. It wasn’t until the end that DeSantis touted his Florida record of a conservative renaissance. Unlike in the initial debate, Haley didn’t highlight her background as an accountant, mom, governor and diplomat into one package. She instead got into sniping fests with Scott, a fellow South Carolinian.
Her most memorable line of the night was aimed at Ramaswamy, who is among a pack of candidates trailing Trump and generally falling behind DeSantis in national polls.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Haley told the 38-year-old political novice.
It was probably the sharpest line of the night, and it was aimed down.
There were some awkward and downright cringeworthy moments during the debate, from lines that were heavily rehearsed to some clunky retorts.
Christie, in an early broadside against Trump, looked directly into the camera and declared that if he keeps skipping debates, he would deserve a new nickname: “Donald Duck.”
Scattered laughter was slow to follow.
Christie made another uncomfortable barb later at someone no one expected to be mentioned Wednesday: first lady Jill Biden. The New Jersey governor, while trying to suggest that teachers unions have a strong influence in Biden’s White House, declared the president is “sleeping with a member of the teachers union.” The first lady is a community college teacher and member of the National Education Association.
Rather than staying away from the uncomfortable subject of private marital relations, former Vice President Mike Pence ran toward the subject when he got his first opportunity after several other candidates gave other answers around education. He referred to his own wife’s work as a teacher.
“I gotta admit, I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” Pence said.
He didn’t need to.