Republican presidential hopefuls strengthen Trump’s leadership by making him the center of the second debate

The seven candidates intensified their attacks against the former president, who is leading the race for the 2024 nomination by more than 40 points

Republican candidates during the debate on Wednesday in Simi Valley, California.
Republican candidates during the debate on Wednesday in Simi Valley, California.MIKE BLAKE (REUTERS)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

The second Republican presidential primary debate was marked by urgency, with the seven candidates fighting to stand out from the field. With Donald Trump leading the race for the party’s nomination by almost 40 points, the candidates took jabs at the absent front-runner in an effort to close the gap. The former president skipped the debate, and traveled to Michigan to lead a rally with striking autoworkers. Despite not attending, Trump has come out stronger from the event. Criticizing his decision not to attend was the main issue the seven candidates at the debate — held at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California — could agree on.

“Donald Trump is missing in action,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is second in the polls. “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.”

This line of criticism was started by Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who is the only candidate who is an outspoken critic of the former president. “Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” said Christie. “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.

The economy was the first topic of the debate. The candidates were given 60 seconds to speak on the issue, and tried to use the time to concisely sum up their criticism of Bidenomics, rising inflation, which is at 9% and eating away into the purchasing power of millions of families, and soaring gas prices, with a gallon costing close to $7 in California.

“Bidenomics has failed,” said Trump’s former vice president Mike Pence. “Joe Biden’s Green New Deal agenda is good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.”

As the debate took place, Trump held a rally in the swing state of Michigan, where he was greeted by thousands of American workers. In Clinton Township, he talked about why their jobs have gone to countries such as China and Mexico. And he made fun of the second debate, which was jointly organized by Fox Business Network and Univision, a U.S.-based Spanish-language TV network. “They’re all job candidates,” said Trump. “They’re all competing for jobs and want to be Secretary of Something or they even say VP. Does anybody see any VP in the group? I don’t think so,” he added to applause, some 2,000 miles from the debate. This distance was was a clear metaphor for his lead in the polls.

The second debate took place in the Ronald Reagan Library, with the candidates standing in front of Air Force One — the plane that Ronald Reagan used during his presidency and that was also used by six other leaders between 1973 and 2001. The figure of Reagan — an actor who became governor of California and then the White House — loomed large over the debate. Reagan won his second term in a landslide and is considered an important reference point among Republicans thanks to his commitment to the free market and distaste for government regulation.

The current Republican Party, however, is closer to Trump than to Reagan. When Univision journalist Ilia Calderón made reference to Reagan’s decision to grant amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants in 1986, the candidates pledged to continue with the harsh policies of Trumpism. They discussed militarizing the border by sending National Guard troops, continuing to build a wall with Mexico and defunding cities that provide refuge for migrants. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley even proposed a “special forces” operation against drug cartels operating in Mexico.

Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old businessman who was the surprise star of the first debate, went even further. “I favor ending birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants in this country,” he said with a smile. “Nobody believes that the kid of a Mexican diplomat in this country enjoys birthright citizenship…neither does the kid of an illegal migrant who broke the law to come here.”

Ramaswamy is trying to surpass DeSantis as No. 2 in the polls by arguing that the nationalist agenda is not exclusive to Trump. At last night’s debate, he opted for a message of unity. He also sparked controversy when he said that “transgenderism is a mental health disorder.”

His recent rise in the polls, however, made him a target. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott attacked him for his business dealings with China, his interests in Asia and comparing him to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who is facing federal charges. Ramaswamy is the owner of Roivant Sciences, a company that has done dealings in China. When Ramaswamy defended his use of TikTok — a social network that has been banned by several state Republican governments — Haley fired back: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”

DeSantis, meanwhile, managed to maintain his ground by invoking Reagan and touting his management in Florida as his vision for the country. The next debate will take place in Florida: he will be fighting on home ground. Scott dared to criticize the only woman on stage, accusing her of spending $50,000 on curtains for the ambassador’s residence in New York. The accusation is false: the renovation was commissioned during the Obama administration.

The debate on Wednesday was a fight to stay in the field. The candidates were arranged on stage according to their position in the polls. The center went to DeSantis, who is polling between 14% and 21%. He was flanked by Ramaswamy and Haley, who saw a spike in donations after her performance in the first debate.

Pence was positioned at one end of the stage, a sign of his struggling campaign, which is polling between 3% and 6%. At the other end of the stage was Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota, who monopolized the microphone in the hope of staying in the game. The field has already been narrowed since the first debate in August, with Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, failing to meet the threshold.

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