SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - Seven Republican presidential hopefuls, clamoring for attention as their time to overtake former president Donald Trump grows shorter, showed a new level of combativeness as they interrupted, disputed and at times insulted one another on the debate stage Wednesday night.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis aggressively challenged the absent Trump within the initial minutes of the second presidential debate, and some of his rivals also aimed more pointed barbs at the former president. Still, the GOP candidates spent far more of their time going after each other than the figure who holds a commanding lead in the polls.
Even contenders who were essentially bystanders in the first debate - including Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum - interrupted their rivals and ignored the Fox Business moderators’ entreaties to abide by the rules. The debate descended into a shouting match at times, where it was impossible to hear what any one candidate was saying.
DeSantis entered the night with the most to prove as he clings to a distant second-place position in the early states. Many major donors who had hoped to back a strong alternative to Trump - and initially saw DeSantis as the most promising contender - remain on the sidelines, dismayed by Trump’s strength despite his mounting legal troubles and skittish about the Florida governor’s stumbles.
It was at least 15 minutes into the debate when DeSantis got his first question, but he went on offense, attacking both Trump and President Biden during the discussion of the looming government shutdown.
“Where’s Joe Biden? He’s completely missing in action from leadership,” DeSantis said as he blamed the leaders of both parties for profligate spending in Washington. “You know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt.”
DeSantis also criticized Trump for calling the six-week abortion bans in some states, including Florida, a “terrible thing.” He said the former president should be onstage “explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who is one Trump’s most frequent critics, charged Trump with cowardice for skipping the first two presidential debates.
“Donald, I know you’re watching,” Christie said. “You’re not here tonight - not because of polls and not because of your indictments - you’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things.”
Trump, who has said he sees no reason to participate in the debates as he leads the field by an average of 40 points, attempted to create a split screen by addressing workers in Michigan where the United Auto Workers are on strike demanding higher pay.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who polls suggest benefited most from her performance at the first debate, was at the center of much of the sparring, going after business executive Vivek Ramaswamy, DeSantis and others.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Haley said derisively to Ramaswamy. “We can’t trust you.”
Ramaswamy answered, “I think we would be better served as a Republican Party if we were not sitting here making personal attacks.”
Few new policy positions emerged from the evening’s back and forth, as the candidates blamed “union bosses” for the UAW strike, Biden for the economy and liberals for crime. While some policy differences emerged, such as on the merits of aiding Ukraine, most of the attacks were more personal in nature.
Here are major takeaways from the debate.
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Haley aims shots at her rivals
Haley seized opportunities to challenge the records of both Scott and DeSantis as they battle for second place. But she also relished the chance to mix it up with other rivals, once again heaping scorn on Ramaswamy.
The former South Carolina governor accused DeSantis of supporting a fracking ban in Florida, an attack that he said was false. She also mocked his assertions about what DeSantis would do on Day One as president. “He always talks about what happens on Day One. You’d better watch out for Day Two,” she said.
When Scott began to unfurl attacks on Haley’s record in South Carolina, she replied: “Bring it, Tim!”
Scott charged that Haley had never “seen a federal dollar she didn’t like.” He also pressed her to explain why the State Department paid more than $50,000 for mechanized curtains in the official residence of the ambassador to the United Nations, a role she held during the Trump administration.
Though plans to buy the curtains were made in 2016 during the Obama administration, and Haley’s aides have said she had no say in the purchase, Scott demanded to know why she didn’t return them as the two shouted over one another.
In a sign of Haley’s rising profile, Trump’s team blasted an email to reporters in the midst of the debate filled with opposition research about the “The Real Nikki Haley.”
Ramaswamy continued to be a primary target for other candidates onstage, but he adopted a more conciliatory approach than he did in the first debate, initially praising some ideas of the other Republicans and saying they were just “good people tainted by a broken system.”
The other candidates criticized Ramaswamy for his controversial proposals, like ending birthright citizenship, and purported inconsistencies in his positions, like joining TikTok after previously criticizing the app.
The first-time candidate sought to reframe the criticism leveled at him and his campaign, claiming he is seen as “a young man who is in a bit of a hurry, maybe a little ambitious.”
He, at one point, acknowledged that some see him as a little bit of a “know-it-all.”
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The candidates diverge on immigration
The candidates criticized Biden for not securing the border, invoked deaths caused by fentanyl to argue for the need for further action and stressed that they only welcome immigrants who enter the country legally.
Some avoided specifics in response to pointed questions from Univision anchor Ilia Calderón. Former vice president Mike Pence did not directly say if he would work with Congress to find a solution for the “dreamers,” immigrants who were illegally brought into the United States as children.
Scott and Ramaswamy were split on the notion of birthright citizenship, leading to a heated back and forth. Ramaswamy argued that he could end birthright citizenship even though the 14th Amendment says that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” are U.S. citizens.
Scott disputed that, adding that the 14th Amendment was written to protect formerly enslaved people.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, for his part, mocked Trump for not completing the wall on the Southern border. “What we have to do now is first treat this like the law enforcement problem it is,” Christie said of illegal immigration. “Our laws are being broken on the Southern border every day.”
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A more assertive Scott seizes the spotlight
Scott, who receded into the background during much of the first debate, came out swinging Wednesday evening. He repeatedly sparred with Ramaswamy, citing the tech entrepreneur’s statement in the last debate that his rivals were “bought and paid for.”
“I thought about that for a little while and said, ‘You know, I can’t imagine how you could say that, knowing that you are just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden,’” Scott said, referring to allegations that the President Biden’s son sought to benefit financially from his father’s role as vice president with his foreign clients.
Ramaswamy dismissed that charge as “nonsense.” The two proceeded to repeatedly interrupt one another, a departure from Scott’s typically genial demeanor.
Scott also renewed his criticism of DeSantis’s policy decisions after the moderators asked the governor about an aspect of Florida’s curriculum saying that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
DeSantis responded, “That’s a hoax that was perpetrated by Kamala Harris. We are not going to be doing that.”
Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said there was no “redeeming quality in slavery. He and Kamala should have just taken the one sentence out.”
Scott also used the moment to expand on his lens on race in America, saying, “Black families survived slavery. We survived poll taxes and literacy tests. We survived discrimination being woven into the laws of our country.” And he reiterated that while he has faced discrimination, “America is not a racist country.”
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Blaming Biden for the autoworkers strike
Several of the candidates said they sympathized with the demands of the United Auto Workers on the picket line in Michigan, but they quickly sought to blame Biden for the economic woes of workers in the Midwest.
The debate highlighted the divide within the GOP between the traditional conservative and populist wings. Scott said that “one of the challenges that we have in the current negotiations is that they want four-day French workweeks but more money - they want more benefits working fewer hours.”
Ramaswamy said he didn’t “have a lot of patience for the union bosses” but that he did “have a lot of sympathy for the workers.”
Pence blamed spending by Democrats during the Biden administration for the pinch that many American workers are feeling due to inflation.
“Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line,” Pence said.
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An effort to score points over the shutdown
Several of the candidates sought to highlight their governing styles as a contrast to the current dysfunction in Washington.
The debate came days before the government hurtles toward a likely shutdown Sunday, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) battles with the hard-line members of his caucus who continue to block spending bills as they demand funding cuts, border security measures and other provisions.
When asked about the looming shutdown, Christie sought to use the opportunity to blame both Democrats and Republicans in Washington and highlight the national debt.
“Voters should blame everybody who is in Washington, D.C.,” Christie said. “They get sent down there to do the job, and they’ve been failing at doing the job for a very long time. And let’s be honest about this with the voters: During the Trump administration, they added $7 trillion in national debt, and now the Biden administration has put in $5 trillion on and counting. They have failed.”