5 takeaways from another Trump-free Republican debate
By Shane Goldmacher, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan
As he sat in the spin room with Fox News host Sean Hannity after the second Republican debate Wednesday night, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accurately summed up the spectacle he had just participated in.
“If I was at home watching that,” DeSantis said, “I would have changed the channel.”
The meandering and at times indecipherable debate seemed to validate former President Donald Trump’s decision to skip it. With only occasional exceptions, the Republicans onstage seemed content to bicker with one another. Most of them delivered the dominant front-runner only glancing blows and did little to upend the political reality that Trump is lapping all of his rivals — whose cumulative support in most national polls still doesn’t come close to the former president’s standing.
Here are five takeaways from 120 minutes of cross-talk, unanswered questions, prepackaged comebacks and nary a word mentioning the heavy favorite’s legal jeopardy.
Punches grazed Trump, but the status quo remains.
The first time he spoke, DeSantis finally took on Trump in front of a national audience.
“Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt. That set the stage for the inflation that we have now.”
Allies and some donors had long been itching for such forcefulness.
But by the end of the 120-minute slog of a debate, that line felt more like an aberration that blended into the background. The candidates mostly seemed to intentionally ignore Trump’s overwhelming lead — other than Christie, who took an awkward stab at a nickname (“Donald Duck”).
In a memo to donors before the debate, a pro-Mike Pence super PAC had a blunt take: “This race needs to be shaken up, and soon.”
The race seemed barely stirred.
The 91 criminal counts Trump is charged with went unmentioned — both by the moderators and the candidates ostensibly running against him. And while the former president did sustain more criticism than in the first debate, the seven candidates onstage spent most of the night poking at one another, in what could feel like a pitched battle for second place.
Tim Scott hit Nikki Haley over curtains and a gas tax. Haley sideswiped DeSantis over fracking. Vivek Ramaswamy was hit over his past business ties to China. And he accused everyone of not knowing the Constitution. Christie tried to turn things back to Trump — suggesting at one point that he “be voted off the island.”
It all amounted to a muddy mess.
DeSantis offers a glimpse of what his supporters have wanted.
DeSantis’ allies believed that his first debate performance, despite some criticism from the news media about a seeming lack of aggressiveness, was effective. And they wanted a repeat performance.
They largely got it. DeSantis made the most of the night’s lone question on abortion to criticize Trump for attacking Florida’s restrictive six-week abortion ban. He largely evaded a question about his past remarks about his state’s curriculum on slavery, in which he suggested some enslaved people were taught valuable skills.
At the outset, DeSantis seemed assertive and in command. Other than an extended back-and-forth with Haley, he mostly avoided shouting matches.
He also did his best to find spots to enter the discussion, after being largely ignored by the Fox Business moderators for much of the first hour. That enraged his advisers, but he ultimately ended up speaking more than anyone.
Haley cemented her spot near center stage.
Haley, whose solid performance at the first debate had ignited fresh interest from some major donors, appeared comfortable standing center stage. She took aim at DeSantis and fended off attacks from Scott, whom she first appointed to the Senate.
In between, she rattled off one of the evening’s more memorable lines — “every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she snapped at Ramaswamy as he talked about why he joined TikTok.
More than anything else, Haley’s rising standing was confirmed by the fact that some rivals began to pick apart elements of her record as governor and United Nations ambassador.
Scott at one point forced her into a detailed discussion of the gas tax in their state. But she seemed ready to engage.
“Bring it, Tim,” she told him.
Tim Scott reasserted himself.
Tim did, in fact, bring it.
The senator from South Carolina had faded into the backdrop of the first debate and slumped in the polls. But from the opening moments of Wednesday’s contest, he jostled for time and, notably, mixed up his sunny brand of optimism with some sharp jabs at Ramaswamy and Haley.
Notably, he did not target Trump.
Perhaps his strongest moment of the evening came in the exchange with DeSantis over Florida’s curriculum on slavery. He mostly glided past the specifics — though he said there was “not a redeeming quality” in slavery — to talk about his life story and how it led to him standing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as the only Black candidate onstage.
“I have been discriminated against, but America is not a racist country,” he declared.
Ramaswamy showed a kinder, gentler side.
Immediately after the first debate, many pundits quickly declared Ramaswamy the winner. He drew outsize attention by shredding his opponents with personal attacks. At one point, he went so far as to accuse them of corruption, saying he was the only one onstage who wasn’t bought and paid for.
But the polling data that emerged after the debate did not support the narrative that he had won. Republican voters developed an increasingly negative view of Ramaswamy, and he is performing poorly in early-state polls compared with his relative strength in national online polls.
So on Wednesday night, it was Ramaswamy 2.0 — a conciliatory candidate who was chastising his competitors for attacking one another and repeatedly going out of his way to say how much he liked and respected them.
Instead, Christie filled the role of combatant-in-chief Wednesday, from his new nickname for Trump to a cringe-inducing reference to President Joe Biden’s “sleeping” with a teachers’ union member — his wife. (Pence, who was far less a presence than in the first debate, decided to inject that he’d been sleeping with a teacher for decades, too — also, his wife.)