Donald Trump emerged as the dominant figure in the second Republican primary debate, which ran for a lengthy two hours. Surprisingly, the 91 criminal counts looming over the former president in four jurisdictions were conspicuously absent from both questions and answers during the event. Instead of focusing on Trump’s legal issues, the seven candidates on stage devoted more time and energy to attacking Vivek Ramaswamy, a relatively unknown political newcomer with low national poll numbers.
While there were more jabs at Trump compared to the first debate in August, most of them centered on his absence from the stage rather than critiquing his actions as president or since then. Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, playfully dubbed him “Donald Duck” for avoiding questions but did not face concerted criticism regarding his recent statement hinting at a potential compromise on abortion. This departure from the GOP’s traditional hardline stance on abortion remained largely unaddressed.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was the only one to mention Trump’s remarks from the previous week when he accused DeSantis of a “serious mistake” in signing a six-week abortion ban in Florida. Trump also attributed Republican losses in the previous year’s midterm elections to the abortion issue.
The debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and hosted by Fox Business and Univision, frequently descended into chaos, with candidates talking over each other and the moderators struggling to maintain order.
In terms of performance, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley continued to impress with her precise and clear responses. DeSantis displayed more confidence compared to his previous appearance, while South Carolina Senator Tim Scott took a more assertive stance. Ramaswamy, on the other hand, faced criticism from multiple contenders, with Haley bluntly telling him, “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”
Despite the heated exchanges, the fundamental dynamics of the race appeared unchanged by the end of the evening. Trump remained the frontrunner with a commanding 56.6% support, holding a significant lead of over 42 percentage points over DeSantis, who occupied the second spot.
The debate failed to produce a clear alternative to Trump, and the crowded field of contenders only seemed to bolster his chances, much like in the 2016 election. While some candidates may have had different objectives, such as vying for a vice-presidential slot or positioning themselves for future presidential campaigns, unseating Trump from his secure position as the frontrunner remains a formidable challenge.
Trump’s absence from the debate was conspicuous as he had chosen to address autoworkers in Michigan, a pivotal swing state in the general election. This move indicated his pivot towards the general election, where he plans to challenge President Joe Biden, largely disregarding the Republican challengers in the primary race.
After the debate, senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita called on the Republican National Committee to halt further primary debates and instead focus on defeating President Joe Biden. The Trump campaign wasted no time in sending out a fundraising appeal, accusing “disloyal Republicans” of playing into Biden’s hands during the GOP debate, although these attacks on Trump were relatively mild.