Seven Republican candidates met for the second primary debate in California on Wednesday, taking aim at President Biden and each other while the clear front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination was speaking nearly 2,000 miles away.
The candidates tackled issues like the strike by United Auto Workers, the looming government shutdown, immigration policy and education, placing the blame squarely at Mr. Biden's feet for most of the issues currently facing the country.
But it was former President Donald Trump who loomed large over the gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, even as he skipped the contest to. A new this week found Trump with sizable leads over his rivals in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contests of the nomination process.
These were the candidates on hand for Wednesday's debate:
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
- Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
- North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum
- Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
- Former Vice President Mike Pence
- Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina
- Vivek Ramaswamy
Thedid little to change the underlying dynamic of the race, and Wednesday's contest featured few signs that any candidate is poised to break through and meaningfully challenge Trump's lead.
Several candidates took the former president to task over his decision to skip the debate, a sign that they see his refusal as a weakness to exploit moving forward. DeSantis, who is second in most polls, said Trump was "missing in action." Christie said Trump "hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won't show up here to answer questions."
Otherwise, the candidates largely focused on the current occupant of the White House, and each other. Several took aim at the 38-year-old Ramaswamy, a relative newcomer whose modest rise in the polls before the first debate in Milwaukee made him a target there as well. In the sharpest line of the night, Haley said: "Honestly every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say."
Here are the most notable moments from Wednesday's debate:
DeSantis says Trump is "missing in action" for skipping debate
After a round of questions about the UAW strike, the moderators turned to the looming knock Trump for not showing up to the debate.. Speaking for the first time, DeSantis took the opportunity to
"Donald Trump is missing in action," DeSantis said in response to a question on whether populist Republicans are to blame for the shutdown. "He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record."
DeSantis criticized Trump for adding more than $7 trillion to the nation's debt during his presidency, which Christie also noted, while chiding him for not showing up.
"Donald Trump, he hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won't show up here to answer questions," Christie said. "He puts $7 trillion on the debt, he should be in this room to answer those questions."
Christie said "everyone" is to blame for the shutdown.
"Voters should blame everybody who's in Washington, D.C. They're being sent down there to do the job, and they've been failing at doing the job for a very long time," Christie said. "If the government closes, it is to the blame of everyone in Washington, D.C."
Christie says Biden is "doing nothing" to enforce immigration laws, says Trump also "failed"
Christie, New Jersey's former Republican governor, said the U.S. is "not in a position" to legalize the millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
Asked about former President Ronald Reagan's decision to sign a law that legalized several million unauthorized immigrants in the 1980s and whether he would support a similar measure, Christie said the U.S. should focus on enforcing immigration laws, citing the high levels of illegal border crossings in the past two years.
"Our laws are being broken everyday at the border," Christie said. "And Joe Biden and his crew [are] doing nothing about enforcing that law."
Christie said he would deploy the National Guard to the U.S. southern border if elected.
"We want you here in this country to fill the 6 million vacant jobs we have. But only if you come here to follow the law and only if you come here legally," he said. "If you come here illegally, we will apprehend you and we will send you back across the border from which you came. And the fact is that until we set a law and order agenda in this country, not only now but in the future, we won't be able to continue this."
The former governor also criticized Trump for his record on immigration, saying he did not fulfill his promise to "build a wall" along the border.
"Donald Trump failed on this as well. He said he was going to build a wall across the whole border. He built 52 miles of wall and said Mexico would pay for it," Christie said, understating the roughly 400 miles of new border wall structures built between 2017 and 2021. "Guess what? I think if Mexico knew that he was only going to build 52 miles, they might have paid for the 52 miles."
Candidates take aim at Ramaswamy over business record and China
Like in the first debate, the 38-year-old Ramaswamy again became a target of the other candidates, with his rivals taking aim at his business record.
"Last debate, he said we were all 'bought and paid for' and I thought about that for a little while, and said, you know, I can't imagine how you can say that knowing that you were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden [with] millions of dollars was a partner of yours as well," Scott said.
Ramaswamy called the accusation "nonsense" and said he pulled his company out of the Chinese market while other companies were expanding there.
"You know what I did with my first company? We opened a subsidiary in China. But you know what I did that was different than every other company? We got the hell out of there," he said.
"Yeah, right before you ran for president," Haley said.
Candidates clash in sharp exchange over U.S. support for Ukraine
In an exchange that brought out some of the starkest differences in opinion of the night, the candidates clashed over the United States' ongoing support for Ukraine amid Russia's ongoing invasion, an issue that has become a sticking point in negotiations in Washington to avoid a government shutdown.
DeSantis said it's in the United States' interest to end the war.
Scott said "degrading the Russian military" is in "our national vital interest," now and in the long run.
"At the end of the day, when you think about the fact, if you want to keep American troops at home, an attack on NATO territory would bring our troops in," Scott said.
Ramaswamy said it's time to "level with the American people."
"Just because [Vladimir] Putin's an evil dictator does not mean Ukraine is good," Ramaswamy said.
Haley, who often clashes with Ramaswamy, interjected.
"A win for Russia is a win for China," Haley said to Ramaswamy, adding, "I forgot, you like Russia."
Pence, supportive of continued Ukraine aid, said, "Peace comes through strength."
Christie said of Russia, "If we give them any of Ukraine, next will be Poland."
Haley to Ramaswamy: "I feel a little bit dumber" after listening to you
Haley slammed Ramaswamy during a discussion on TikTok, after a moderator noted that the entrepreneur recently joined the social media platform, which has been roundly criticized by Republicans as being a spy mechanism for China.
"You joined TikTok after dinner with boxer and influencer Jake Paul. Should the commander in chief be so easily persuaded by an influencer?" Varney, the moderator, asked Ramaswamy.
"So the answer is, I have a radical idea for the Republican Party," Ramaswamy said. "We need to win elections, and part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation of young Americans where they are."
Haley jumped in, calling Ramaswamy's position "infuriating."
"TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have," she said. "Honestly every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say."
She later said, "We can't trust you."
"I think we would be better served as a Republican Party if we're not sitting here hurling personal insults and actually have a legitimate debate about policy," Ramaswamy said.
DeSantis dismisses polls, and Christie says Trump should be "voted off the island"
In the last segment of the night, moderator Dana Perino asked the candidates to write down which candidate on stage they would choose to vote "off the island." Mathematically, Perino pointed out, the crowded field gives Trump a clearer path to the nomination.
But DeSantis dismissed the exercise, suggesting it would be disrespectful to his fellow candidates. Asked instead to explain his path to the nomination in the face of Trump's "commanding and enduring lead," DeSantis likewise dismissed the polls.
"Polls don't elect presidents, voters elect presidents," DeSantis said. "And we're going to take the case to voters in these early states. We're going to do it in a state by state direction. And why? Because as Reagan said in his day, this is our time for choosing."
But Christie was happy to weigh in on the original question.
"I'd vote Donald Trump off the island right now," Christie said.
"Every person on this stage has shown the respect for Republican voters to come here, to express their views honestly, and candidly, and directly, and to take your questions directly," Christie said, adding that he has "respect for every man and woman on this stage."
But Trump, who ditched the debate, has caused great rifts in the country, Christie said.
"This guy has not only divided our party, he's divided families all over this country," Christie said. "He's divided friends all over this country. I've spoken to people, and I know everyone else has, who have sat at Thanksgiving dinner, or at a birthday party, and can't have a conversation anymore if they disagree with Donald Trump. He needs to be voted off the island, and he needs to be taken out of this process."
Ramaswamy said, although he disagrees with Christie on Trump, that "the America first agenda does not belong to one man … it belongs to you, the people of this country."
With that, the debate concluded.
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