Donald Duck missing in action and other key moments of the Republican debate

Several candidates dared to criticize the absent Trump, but none stood out enough to narrow his lead in the polls

Miguel Jiménez

The second Republican primary debate was marked, like the first, by the absence of Donald Trump. Several of the candidates dared to take jabs at the former president. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie addressed him directly, looking at the camera, and, with a play on words, said it was time to call him “Donald Duck.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis criticized his absence, saying he was “missing in action.” Former vice president Mike Pence accused him of trying to monopolize power in Washington. But Trump’s legal problems were not mentioned.

The debate, however, was disorganized and boring at times. It lacked the novelty factor and the frequent sparring that animated the first one. This time, there were arguments, with the candidates yelling loudly over the top of one another, so much so that it was difficult to hear what was being said. The moderators were neither able to organize the debate nor bring it to life. With seven participants on stage, no candidate managed to rise above the rest. Vivek Ramaswamy — who grabbed the limelight in the first debate — this time received attacks from all sides. DeSantis — who is a far second in the polls behind Trump — managed better than in the first event, but did not shine at any point either. Nikki Haley probably put in the best performance.

The Trump campaign declared itself the winner. The former president was the star of the debate despite his absence, and the attacks against him — which overlooked the criminal cases against him and his behavior after the 2020 elections — were little more than jabs. The former president counterprogrammed the debate with a rally at a factory in Michigan, where he lambasted electric cars and President Joe Biden, whom he sees as his true rival for the elections on November 5, 2024. The Republicans also took aim at Biden in the second debate, which discussed inflation, insecurity and immigration, but not the imminent threat of a government shutdown or the 91 crimes for which Trump is charged.

Here is an overview of some of the most notable moments of the night.

Ron DeSantis

The governor of Florida began by criticizing the situation in the United States: inflation, insecurity, immigration. “And where’s Joe Biden?” he asked. “He’s completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? 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, where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt.”

"Missing in action"

The Florida governor is second in the polls, but Donald Trump’s lead has only been widening. DeSantis decided to take some jabs against the former president in the second debate, criticizing his absence, and also boasting of his firm policy against abortion, as opposed to Trump’s unwillingness to back a national ban. As he had the highest polling numbers of the seven candidates, he was given center stage. He also spoke the most of the candidates. While he made somewhat better use of his minutes than in the first debate, he did not manage to rise up enough to be perceived as a real alternative. "Polls don't elect presidents. Voters elect presidents," he said near the end of the debate. He is not giving up hope.

Vivek Ramaswamy

The technology entrepreneur spoke out against birthright citizenship for children of migrants who entered illegally into the United States. “I favor ending birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants in this country,” he said.

"Birthright citizenship"

Ramaswamy was the surprise star of the first debate. He dominated the discussion and attacked the other candidates, and survived most of the faceoffs relatively well, although he did receive a couple of blows. He came across as a millennial Trumpist and defended the legacy of the former president. In the second debate, however, the wow factor had worn off. He appealed for unity and overcoming divisions when attacked, but was unconvincing. He was criticized for having had business dealings in China, for using TikTok and for not supporting aid to Ukraine, among other issues. And he was not adept at defending himself from these attacks. His message sounded contrived and at times he said made false claims, such as “transgenderism a mental health disorder.”

Nikki Haley

The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations chose Vivek Ramaswamy as the target of her attacks. She took aim, for example, at his use of TikTok: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she said. “This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps we could have.”

"I feel a little bit dumber"

Nikki Haley, the only woman competing in the Republican primary, appeared to be one of the winners of the second debate. She also stood out in the first one. She handled herself with ease, showed her own criteria, did not shy away from clashes with other candidates, among them Ramaswamy and Senator Tim Scott, and completed an error-free performance. If it were not for Trump's huge lead over all the candidates, she would look like the rising star of the primaries.


Mike Pence

Donald Trump’s former vice president attacked Trump for his desire to seize power in Washington. Pence, on the other hand, promised to deliver more resources and powers to the states. However, most of his attacks were directed at Biden. He criticized Biden’s support for green energy and his decision to join the Michigan picket line on Tuesday: “Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line, he belongs on the unemployment line.”

"Joe Biden belongs on the unemployment line"

Pence's reference to the unemployment line is not very apt. Job creation has broken records during Joe Biden's tenure. The U.S. economy saw more job creation in the first half of his presidency than in any first term of his predecessors. The unemployment rate remains near half-century lows, consistently below 4%. In fact, what worries the Fed is that the labor market is too tight, with far more job openings than people looking for work. Aside from that comment, Pence’s performance was bland. In the first debate, he managed to get the other candidates to defend his decision to stand up to Trump when he asked him to annul the 2020 election result. This time the issue was not even raised.

Chris Christie

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie looked into the camera to address Trump directly: “Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” he said. “You’re not here tonight not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen, you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore, we’re going to call you ‘Donald Duck,’” he joked.

"We're going to call you Donald Duck"

Christie is the fiercest opponent of Trump of the seven Republican primary candidates. He said that the former president "hides behind the walls of his golf clubs" instead of answering questions. And when the moderators, without much success, tried to turn the primary race into the reality TV show Survivor and asked "who should leave the island," he was the only one to wet himself: "I’d vote Donald Trump off the island right now. This guy has not only divided our party – he’s divided families all over this country. He’s divided friends all over this country.” Christie was booed by the audience at the debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley (California), but at some points his comments were also met with laughter and applause.

Tim Scott

Tim Scott is the only Black senator in the Republican Party and the only Black candidate in the party’s presidential primaries. He criticized DeSantis for a section of Florida’s history curriculum, which “states laves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” “Black families survived slavery. We survived poll taxes and literacy tests. We survived discrimination being woven into the laws of our country.”

"Black families survived slavery"

Despite that comment, Scott maintains that the United States is not racist. In the first debate, he made very little impact, but in the second, there were moments where he showed his oratory skill. He got involved with a spat with Nikki Haley, in which the two talked over one another. Overall, his campaign has fallen far short of expectations. He tried to gain some notoriety in the wake of the strike against the Detroit Big Three by saying that he would be in favor of firing the striking workers. When asked if he would fire hundreds of thousands of workers, he backed down, claiming that no president can fire private sector employees.

Doug Burgum

The autoworker strike was mentioned several times in the debate. The governor of North Dakota also referred to it: “The reason why people are striking in Detroit is because of Joe Biden’s interference with capital markets and free markets. The subsidies — we’re subsidizing the automakers and we’re subsidizing the cars, and a particular kind of car, not every car. We’re subsidizing electric vehicles.”

"We're subsidizing the electric car"

Burgum is a marginal candidate, who only scrapped into the second debate at the last moment. His polling numbers are low. He was not able to stand out in the debate, and he was the candidate who spoke the least. That said, one of his addresses went on for so long that the moderators threatened to cut his microphone. He will probably not make the threshold to take part in the third debate, scheduled for November 8 in Miami.

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