DemDaily: The Debate Download

September 29, 2023

Seven of the GOP presidential candidates faced off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Sima Valley, California Wednesday night in the second Republican debate of the 2024 primary.

The event was no less chaotic than the first debate, with little attempt by the moderators to reign in rambling candidates, anxious to get in their extra 30 second sound bite while continuously talking over their rivals.

What could have been an opportunity for the contenders to present themselves as presidential -- or more realistically, vice presidential -- was lost in unchecked bickering that provided few answers, let alone solutions.

The showdown also did little to diminish the 40-point lead of frontrunner and former President Donald Trump, who once again declined to participate -- deeming the debate unworthy of his time.

While most of the candidates stepped up their attacks against Trump, with some notable zingers, the de facto nominee and the 91 felony counts against him were never the subject of questions by moderators.

On The Stage: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson did not qualify for the second debate.

The Highlights
The debate opened with the economy and the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike, providing a platform for candidates to condemn "Bidenomics," while bashing the "union bosses" and Biden for picketing with union members in Michigan.

Haley, who again led on substance, blamed the plight of the workers on Biden-driven inflation, while Pence, who gave another underwhelming performance, said "Biden doesn't belong on the picket line, he belongs on unemployment line." Scott, who was considerably more aggressive than the first debate, said, "Joe Biden should not be on the picket line. He should be on the southern border working to close our southern border."

Indeed, candidates turned to securing the border throughout the debate as a means of deflecting questions about the larger issue of comprehensive immigration reform, as well as a permanent solution for DACA "Dreamers." Haley did get a pitch in for defunding sanctuary cities.

At one point, Ramaswamy, echoing Trump and DeSantis' positions, said he favored ending birthright citizenship for the children of "illegal immigrants" in the the United States, followed by a heated debate with Scott over the definition of citizen under the 14th Amendment.

Ramaswamy, who received a boost in the polls (albeit still under 10%) after the last debate, repeated previous diatribes, attacking Biden's "disastrous economic policies," among others. What we need," said Ramaswamy, "is to deliver economic growth in this country. Unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear energy, put people back to work by no longer paying them more money to stay at home."

DeSantis, who as the top polling candidate in the field took center stage, failed to take advantage of the spotlight. The Florida governor repeatedly referred to his record of "leadership," from cutting taxes and eliminating critical race theory in schools to firing progressive prosecutors.

His stand out moment came in an early jab at Trump. While condemning Biden as “completely missing in action” on the economy, and blaming him for inflation and the autoworkers strike, DeSantis said, "And 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.”

Christie also made an early shot across the bow at Trump when asked whether “Trump’s populist prodigies” should be blamed for the looming government shutdown, Christie faulted the Washington, DC establishment, assailing the $7 trillion in national debt added under Trump, and the "$5 trillion on and counting" added under the Biden administration. He also condemned Trump for "hiding behind the walls of his golf clubs."

On the subject of crime, Christie said Trump should be held accountable for the lack of law and order in the country. Speaking to the camera, Christie said, "Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself," accusing him of "ducking things," and suggesting Trump's new nickname was "Donald Duck."

Candidate Speaking Time in Minutes: Vivek Ramaswamy: 12:30, Ron DeSantis: 12:08, Tim Scott: 11:21, Chris Christie: 10:27, Nikki Haley: 10:22, Mike Pence: 9:38, Doug Burgum: 7:39

Haley alternately skirmished with Scott and Ramaswamy, while Burgum, too polite to interrupt, ending with the least speaking time. The North Dakota governor was, however, allowed to address gun control -- defending law enforcement and "the law-abiding citizens that are gun owners" from "the liberal left" that want to take away the Second Amendment rights of Americans.

The economic and security threat posed by China was also a recurring reference, used as a foil on a number of issues. Scott accused Ramaswamy, a tech entrepreneur, of being in business with the Chinese Communist Party, and Haley attacked Ramaswamy for using TikTok when it is banned on government-issued devices because of its ties to the Chinese government. "TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have," said Haley. "Honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say." She added, "You were in business with the Chinese that gave Hunter Biden $5 million. We can’t trust you."

The topic of education opened up a flood of pronouncements, with Haley advocating for school choice, increased parental involvement and literacy, and to "quit spending time on this DEI and CRT."

Christie decried the public school system as being run by the "straggly" teachers unions. In a somewhat shocking comment, he said, "When you have the president of United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union," referencing First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, "They have an advocate inside the White House every day for the worst of their teachers, not for our students to be the best they can be."

When it turned to parental rights for transgender youth, Ramaswamy said, “Parents have the right to know,” claiming that “transgenderism” is a “mental health disorder.” Pence went a step further, claiming that he would pass a federal ban on “transgender chemical or surgical surgery," saying, "We've got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology agenda.”

Abortion received all of five minutes of the debate, with all candidates scrambling to prove their pro-life credentials.

Support for Ukraine revealed divisions amongst the field, with DeSantis criticizing the "blank check" extended to the war-torn country, while Scott pointed to our national vital interest in seeing the Russian military degraded. Haley said, "A win for Russia is a win for China," before turning to Ramaswamy and saying, "But I forgot. You like China."

DeSantis led the group in refusing to answer Perino's final question of, "Which one of you should be voted off the island? Christie, however, volunteered that it should be Trump -- for dividing the party and the country.

The third GOP presidential primary debate will take place on Wednesday, November 8 in Miami, Florida -- just over two months before the Iowa caucuses.

A FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos post-debate poll showed no candidate moved by more than 3% in favorability. Meanwhile, Trump continues to dominate the race, with 64% of likely Republican voters saying they are at least considering voting for him.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: CNN, AP, BBC, Fox, FiveThirtyEight, Time, NYT, FiveThirtyEight, Pavlovic Today

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