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.
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.
“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.
Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a former South Carolina governor called 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Christie 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. Haley had most memorable line of the night was aimed at Ramaswamy.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Haley told the 38-year-old political novice.