The second 2024 Republican presidential primary debate ended just as it began: with former President Donald Trump – who hasn’t yet appeared alongside his rivals onstage – as the party’s dominant front-runner.
The seven GOP contenders in Wednesday night’s showdown at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California provided a handful of memorable moments, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley unloading what often seemed like the entire field’s pent-up frustration with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Two candidates criticized Trump’s absence, as well. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was “missing in action.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the former president “Donald Duck” and said he “hides behind his golf clubs” rather than defending his record on stage. The GOP field also took early shots at President Joe Biden.
However, what played out in the debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and Univision, is unlikely to change the trajectory of a GOP race in which Trump has remained dominant in national and early-state polling. And the frequently messy, hard-to-track crosstalk could have led many viewers to tune out entirely.
Here are some key takeaways from the second GOP primary debate:
Trump’s safe approach appears to pays 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.
A messy two hours: 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 attempted to stand out as viable alternatives to the absentee Trump. Further complicating the matter, some of the highest polling candidates after Trump – DeSantis and Haley – were among those least willing to dive into the muck, especially during the crucial first hour.
Candidates piled on Vivek 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. Other candidates still had clashes with him. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott Scott went after the tech entrepreneur, saying his business record included ties to the Chinese Communist Party and money going to Hunter Biden. At another point after Ramaswamy had responded to a question about his use of TikTok, Haley jumped in, saying, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber from what you say” and adding, “We can’t trust you.”
Palmetto pummeling: All night, Scott seemed like he was looking for a fight with somebody and he finally got that when he set his sights on fellow South Carolinian Haley. He began his line of attack – which Haley interjected with a “Bring it” – by accusing her of spending $50,000 on curtains in a $15 million subsidized location during her time as the US ambassador to the United Nations. What ensued was the two Republicans going back and forth about the curtains.
An uneven performance for DeSantis: Confronted by his Republican competitors for the first time in earnest, DeSantis delivered an uneven performance from the center of the stage – a spot that is considerably less secure than it was heading into the first debate in Milwaukee. Despite rules that allowed candidates to respond if they were invoked, DeSantis let Fox slip to commercial break when Pence seemed to blame the governor for a jury decision to award a life sentence, not the death penalty, to the mass murderer in the Parkland high school shooting. The Florida governor did manage 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.