Takeaways from the second Republican presidential debate

Sep 27, 2023, 9:16 PM

2nd GOP debate...

Republican presidential candidates stand behind their podiums during the GOP primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 27. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

(Mark J. Terrill/AP)

(CNN) — The Republicans vying to become the top alternative to Donald Trump in 2024 opened their second debate Wednesday night with new attacks on the front-runner, but their efforts to separate themselves from the pack were marred by a chaotic environment, filled with cross-talk.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has long been in second place to Trump but has been sagging in the polls recently, said Trump is “missing in action.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose campaign has been rooted in Trump criticism, took aggressive swings at the former president, calling him “Donald Duck” and saying he “hides behind his golf clubs” rather than defending his record on the debate stage.

The GOP field also took early shots at President Joe Biden. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said Biden, rather than joining the striking autoworkers’ union on the picket line Tuesday in Michigan, should be on the southern border. Former Vice President Mike Pence said Biden should be “on the unemployment line.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said the autoworkers should be protesting outside Biden’s White House instead. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum claimed Biden is interfering with “free markets.”

However, the debate’s early chaos made following what candidates were saying all but impossible for viewers. The hard-to-track exchanges made it even more difficult for any candidate to emerge as the most viable alternative to Trump.

Here are three early takeaways from the ongoing debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and Univision, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California:

Trump’s safe approach appears to pay off

Trump might be playing it safe by skipping the debates and taking a running-as-an-incumbent approach to the 2024 GOP primary.

It’s hard to see, though, how he would pay a significant price in the eyes of primary voters for missing Wednesday night’s messy engagement.

Trump’s rivals took a few shots at the former president. DeSantis knocked him for deficit spending. Christie mocked him, calling him “Donald Duck” for skipping the debate.

But he largely escaped serious scrutiny of his four years in the Oval Office from a field of rivals courting voters who have largely positive views of Trump’s presidency.

Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita told CNN the debate was “a joke,” adding that it so far has amounted to “an interview to be the ‘designated survivor.’”

Candidates pile on Ramaswamy

Some of the candidates onstage didn’t want to have a repeat of the first debate, in which Ramaswamy managed to stand out as a formidable debater and showman.

Early in Wednesday’s debate, Scott went after the tech entrepreneur, saying his business record included ties to the Chinese Communist Party and money going to Hunter Biden. The visibly annoyed Ramaswamy shifted gears from praising all the other candidates onstage to defending his business record. But Scott and Ramaswamy ended up talking over each other.

A little later on Pence began an answer with a knock on Ramaswamy, saying, “I’m glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in China.” At another point after Ramaswamy had responded to a question about his use of TikTok, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley jumped in, saying, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber from what you say” and then going on to say, “We can’t trust you. We can’t trust you.” As Ramaswamy tried to readopt his unity tone, Scott could be heard trying to interrupt him.

DeSantis, Pence duck healthcare questions while Haley pounces

Despite the efforts of moderators to pin them down, DeSantis and Pence struggled to respond when challenged on their respective records on health care.

Asked about the Trump administration’s failure to end the Affordable Care Act as promised, Pence opted instead to answer a previous question about mass gun violence. When Fox host Dana Perino pushed Pence one more time to explain why Obamacare remains not just intact but popular, the former vice president once again demurred.

Fox’s Stuart Varney similarly pressed DeSantis to explain why 2.5 million Floridians don’t have health insurance.

DeSantis found a familiar foil for Republicans in California: inflation. Varney, though, said it didn’t explain why Florida has one of the highest uninsurance rates in the country, to which DeSantis had little response.

“Our state’s a dynamic state,” DeSantis said, before pointing to Florida’s population boom and the low level of welfare benefits offered there.

Haley, though, appeared ready to debate health care, arguing for transparency in prices to lessen the power of insurance companies and providers and overhauling lawsuit rules to make it harder to sue doctors.

“How can we be the best country in the world and have the most expensive health care in the world?” Haley said.

A messy first hour

The first hour of the second GOP primary debate was beset by interruptions, crosstalk and protracted squabbles between the candidates and moderators over speaking time.

That’s tough for viewers trying to make sense of it all but even worse for these candidates as they try to stand out as viable alternatives to the absentee Trump.

Further complicating the matter, some of the highest polling candidates – DeSantis and Haley – were among those least willing to dive into the muck during the first hour. The moderators repeatedly tried to clear the road for the Florida governor, who was all but absent from the proceedings for the first 15 minutes.

Ramaswamy has fared somewhat better, speaking louder – and faster – than most of his rivals. But even he has gotten bogged down at points when caught between his own talking points and cross-volleys of criticisms from frustrated candidates like Scott.

The moderator group will likely get criticism for losing control of the room within the first half-hour, but even a messy debate tells voters something about the people taking part.

DeSantis keeps up recent attacks on Trump

Before the first debate in Milwaukee, a top strategist for a pro-DeSantis super PAC told donors that “79% of the people tonight are going to watch the debate and turn it off after 19 minutes.”

By that measure, the Florida governor managed to first speak Wednesday night just in the nick of time – 16 minutes into the debate. And when he finally spoke, he continued the sharper attacks on the GOP front-runner that he has previewed in recent weeks.

DeSantis equated Trump’s absence in California to Biden, who DeSantis said was “completely missing in action for leadership” on the economy, blaming him for inflation and the autoworkers strike.

“And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.”

DeSantis accused Trump of adding “$7.8 trillion to the debt that set the scene for the inflation that we have.”

By the first commercial break, 35 minutes in, Christie was the only other candidate in the room who had levied any criticism of Trump.

Despite the shot taken at the person not on the stage, DeSantis later chided other candidates for fighting among each other instead of focusing on issues and Biden – one of many exchanges that was largely lost as the candidates talked over each other.

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Takeaways from the second Republican presidential debate