Goading Trump, hating Vivek, fighting everyone: Key takeaways from the second GOP debate

Candidates clash in California while Trump skips another televised bloodbath

John Bowden
Washington DC
Thursday 28 September 2023 05:11 BST
Watch the highlights from a stormy second GOP debate

Another Republican debate is in the books, and the race is still very much divided between Donald Trump and the Everyone Else mob.

While the former president was absent for another matchup of the 2024 Republican field, his rivals tore each other to shreds with a vigour that seemed to have grown since their last meeting. Also growing: the field’s exasperation with Mr Trump’s total lack of interest in meeting them head-on.

Here’s what we learned as a field full of Republicans gathered a second time for a chaotic, aggressive and at times very personal brawl.

1. A labour fight makes for awkward conversation

Tonight, America got to witness a stage full of big business-loving Republicans dance around the issue of unionisation, organised labour and the power of concentrated wealth in the US economy.

Sure, there were some delicate attempts by the Fox Business moderators to pull out substantive answers from the candidates. But in general, the candidates onstage refused to provide a clear vision for striking autoworkers in America, and were not pressed in any real way to do so.

The candidates gave no indication as to whether they agreed with the premise that workers should earn a higher rate of a company’s profits if a company is doing well — and whether the striking United Autoworkers (UAW)’s demands were reasonable, by extension. There was also no pushback from moderators against the idea that a push for further development of electric vehicles — a policy supported by the union — was somehow responsible for the auto industry’s supposed woes.

2. Ron DeSantis finds his voice, for better or worse

Speaking of awkward: Ron DeSantis was at the debate tonight.

Having apparently read the coverage of his performance at the first debate — cautious, unwilling to stand out — the Republican largely regarded as holding second place in the crowded field of candidates decided to speak up more often as the candidates traded jabs on Wednesday.

And, well, the results were about what one would expect.

He and others certainly demonstrated a greater willingness to take on the race’s frontrunner. But his ability to land jabs against the former president was mixed. A clean hit near the end on the issue of Mr Trump trashing anti-abortion activists for supposedly costing Republicans a stronger performance in 2022 followed a deeply weird moment in which Mr DeSantis griped that Mr Trump was not onstage to answer for allowing the national debt to increase during his presidency. The problem? Chris Christie had made the exact same point, almost word for word, just a minute earlier.

The former governor missed an opportunity to crucify his opponent over the robotic moment. Maybe he was just drawn off guard completely; more likely, he doesn’t view Mr DeSantis as enough of a threat to warrant a beating like he gave Marco Rubio in 2016.

3. Donald Trump is ‘missing in action’

Mr DeSantis and Mr Christie would both go on to repeat their assertion that Donald Trump was disrespecting Americans and Republican voters both by refusing to show up to the GOP debates. And they were not the only ones more eager to turn fire on the frontrunner this time around.

Perhaps the most revealing moment was when Vivek Ramaswamy, who once again found himself praising the former president (and his current rival for the nomination), gathered the strength to assert that the “America First” agenda did not “belong” to Mr Trump or any other politician. There was also Nikki Haley, a former member of the Trump administration, asserting that her former boss did not understand the fentanyl threat posed by the Chinese market.

But there were no mentions of Mr Trump’s mounting legal battles or the very real possibility that the ex-president could be facing the possibility of jail time as the general election begins next year.

4. Everybody hates Vivek

If one dynamic carried over from the first debate, it was the GOP field’s shared distaste for one of their own: Vivek Ramaswamy.

With even greater vigour than they displayed at the first debate, Mr Ramaswamy’s competitors took turns insulting him and portraying him as a political animal who changed his positions on a dime.

Tim Scott bashed him over his understanding of already existing US-Ukraine policies, as well as his past reversal of opinion regarding Donald Trump and, allegedly, US-China politics. Nikki Haley said she felt “dumber” having listened to him. Chris Christie dismissively barked at him to put his hand down. And Mike Pence waited for the quietest moment possibly to lob a zinger about Mr Ramaswamy’s past lack of voter participation.

Mr Ramaswamy was hopelessly outnumbered, and for the most part failed to land any substantive hits against his foes in response. Consider him the biggest loser of tonight’s matchup.

5. Nikki Haley comes ready to brawl

“Bring it!”

That was Nikki Haley, former UN ambassador and governor of South Carolina, daring her longtime colleague and South Carolina ally Tim Scott to duel her over their state’s gas tax in the waning minutes of Wednesday’s debate.

“In 12 years, where have you been, Tim?” she pressed him at one point.

If Ms Haley was ready to trade words with a familiar face like Mr Scott, she was positively itching for the chance to go after her other opponents as well. Her effort to reject Mr Ramaswamy as unserious and unintelligent was easily the most-tweeted-about moment of the night, though she took aim at others like Mr Trump and Mr DeSantis as well.

Throughout the course of the night, the ex-governor proved to have understood the assignment: break out of the pack and grab attention. Whether she is successful is still up for debate, but there’s no question that Ms Haley played the most aggressive game onstage this evening.

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