Unlike that first debate, the candidates this time threw some early haymakers at Trump, who ditched the affair in favor of speech before auto workers in Michigan. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took his usual swipes while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took some jabs too.
But, as is often the case, the field had trouble keeping its eye on the prohibitive favorite. And by the latter half of the evening, the affair became defined by side squabbles over TikTok, accusations that entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was making people dumber simply by speaking, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott arguing that the Great Society was more insurmountable to Black Americans than slavery, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stressing she didn’t spend the money on pricey curtains in her U.N. residence and former Vice President Mike Pence relaying that he does sleep with his wife.
Trump, by night’s end, had become something of an afterthought — an odd place for a frontrunner to be, but one that probably suits him just fine. Below are the highlights of the event he skipped.
Candidates attacked Trump — but not for his legal woes
The debate closed after two hours with many questions left unanswered.
One topic not mentioned at all: the GOP frontrunner’s legal woes. Trump’s many indictments threaten to derail his campaign, with his court dates next year set for the thick of the GOP primary calendar.
While Christie and others notably went after Trump, saying he should have been on the debate stage or attacking the growth of the federal debt during his presidency, his brushes with the law were not a talking point for his opponents Wednesday night.
South Carolina showdown: Whose curtains are they anyway?
Before Scott and Haley can measure the drapes in the White House, they have to decide who is responsible for a set of curtains in the U.N. ambassador’s official residence.
It all started when Haley aggressively went after Scott, accusing him of being ineffective as a senator: “I appreciate Tim. We have known each other a long time. He has been there 12 years, and he has not done any of that.”
DeSantis interrupted, but the South Carolinians picked their bickering back up later, with each accusing the other of not being good stewards of government money.
The argument, bizarrely, dissolved into the pair yelling about curtains. Scott accused Haley of spending $50,000 on curtains while she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley — correctly — pointed out that it was the Obama administration that purchased the drapes.
The conversation ended with the two of them arguing on if the curtains were sent back.
The feud continues
Haley and Ramaswamy, at it again, this time over TikTok.
Ramaswamy recently signed up for the video-sharing app that his rivals have largely shunned due to its ties to China. And he got asked about it in the debate in a moment that’s sure to go viral on, you guessed it, TikTok.
“I have a radical idea for the Republican Party: We need to win elections. And part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation where they are,” Ramaswamy said. “We’re only going to ever get to declaring independence from China … if we win.”
Haley wasn’t having it. “This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have,” she said. “Honestly every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
Mike Pence gives us something to talk about
Trump referencing his sex life during a 2016 primary debate didn’t seem too out of character. The same can’t be said for his former running mate.
On Wednesday night, Pence jumped on the opportunity to talk about how much he … loves his wife. Earlier in the debate, Christie said Biden was beholden to teachers’ unions because he was “sleeping with a member” of one. (First lady Jill Biden is a longtime educator.)
Pence returned to that minutes later, to talk about how much he, too, loves a particular teacher. “My wife is not a member of the teachers union, but I got to admit, I have been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” the former vice president said, which was met by stunned silence from the rest of the stage.
After it was done, moderator Stuart Varney dryly declared: “next subject.”
Scott: Black families survived slavery. The Great Society is harder.
Scott, the only Black candidate on stage, briefly criticized DeSantis over a line that appeared in a Florida history curriculum suggesting slaves learned skills that benefited them, saying “should have just taken the one sentence out.”
But the South Carolina senator went on to argue that the country has confronted slavery — “we faced our demons in the mirror,” he said — while turning on the issue to criticize Democratic welfare policies dating back to the 1960s.
“Black families survived slavery. We survived poll taxes and literacy tests. We survived discrimination being woven into the laws of our country,” Scott said. “What was hard to survive was [President Lyndon B.] Johnson’s Great Society, where they decided to put money, or they decided to take the Black father out of the household to get a check in the mail, and you can now measure that in unemployment and crime and devastation.”
DeSantis defends sky-high uninsured rate in Florida
DeSantis was pressed on Florida’s high rate of uninsured residents.
When Varney pointed out that Florida’s rate of uninsured residents is worse than the national average, DeSantis tried to explain it by pointing out that his state didn’t doesn’t “have a lot of welfare benefits.”
“You can do well in the state. We are not going to be like California and have massive numbers of people on government programs without work requirements. We believe your work and you got to do that,” DeSantis said. “And so that goes for all the welfare benefits and you know what, that has done? Our unemployment rate is the lowest amongst any. We have the highest GDP growth of any big state.”
Christie’s ‘Donald Duck’ nickname falls flat
Christie is trying to give The Donald a run for his money in the nickname department.
In a direct-to-camera moment — in the middle of responding to a question about how he’d curb crime — Christie tried to turn the tables on the frontrunner not in the room.
“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” Christie said, his finger wagging. “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,” Christie said, ramping up to a clearly pre-planned quip. “And let me tell you what’s going to happen: If you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They’re gonna call you Donald Duck.”
Shortly after the moment, his team sent out a tweet doubling down on this shocking line.
Ramaswamy still has his haters
After needling the rest of the field during the first debate, Ramaswamy tried to play nice Wednesday, praising everyone on the stage.
But time does not heal all wounds.
But Scott, unprompted, went after Ramaswamy — who had previously said other candidates were “bought and paid for” during the first showdown — saying Wednesday night that Ramaswamy was the one bought and paid for by China.
A few minutes later, Pence took another pop at the first-time candidate, saying Ramaswamy only started “voting in presidential elections” in 2018.
DeSantis finally slams Trump, Christie does it again
Trump may not have been in California on Wednesday evening, but both Christie and DeSantis took the opportunity presented by a question about who is to blame for the looming government shutdown to slam the GOP frontrunner.
Christie lumped Trump in with Biden, saying the Democratic president was hiding in a basement while Trump “hides behind the walls of his golf clubs.”
DeSantis, who was positioned on center stage as the highest polling candidate who showed up for the debate, made a more pointed attack, pointing to legislation passed under Trump’s presidency that added to the national debt as a cause of inflation.
“Donald Trump is missing in action,” the Florida governor 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.”
The UAW strike gets the debate treatment
The first question of the debate was about the hottest topic of the day: the striking auto workers.
Scott, who has been critical of unions, was asked first if he believed that they should be fired. He responded by noting that “the president can’t fire private workers.” He then quickly pivoted to talking about migration.
“Joe Biden should not be on the picket line. He should be on the southern border, working to close our southern border,” he said.
Ramaswamy expressed empathy for the workers but told them to “picket in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.” Haley, for her part, blamed government spending for why the workers were striking.
The split screen begins
Trump’s rally in Clinton Township, Mich., began well before the candidates were even introduced on stage. But even though he was speaking hundreds of miles away while they were backstage, his presence could be felt in Simi Valley.
As debate attendees and reporters gathered at the Reagan Library, Trump supporters on the main road leading to the library yelled into bullhorns and waved flags that read “He’ll be back” and “Trump 2024.” The Democratic National Committee was also bracketing the debate, with a plane flying overhead. A banner trailing behind it read: “GOP 2024: A race for the extreme MAGA base.”