Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina participate in the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 27, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. Seven presidential hopefuls squared off in the second Republican primary debate as former President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined again to participate. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The candidates polling from second to eighth in the race for the Republican nomination for president largely agreed on policy, fought over their records and took aim at former President Donald Trump at their second debate of the year Wednesday night.
Trump, who leads polls of the race by substantial margins, skipped the event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, hosted by FOX Business, as he did for the first debate last month.
With Trump absent, the remaining major candidates spent much of the rest of the night largely espousing the same conservative positions on a host of issues: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
They criticized the Biden administration for what they called lax enforcement of the Southern border, decried a rise in crime and promised to be tougher on China. They promoted charter schools and rejected gender-affirming health care for transgender people. They pledged to reduce the size of the federal government and reverse President Joe Biden’s policies meant to transition away from fossil fuel use.
Confronted by moderators on the last question of the evening about how they planned to overcome their substantial polling deficits, DeSantis said voters in early states would make their own choices, regardless of polls.
In the latest FiveThirtyEight average of polls, Trump was the choice of 54% of GOP primary voters, with DeSantis a distant second at 13.8%.
The second Republican presidential debate coincided with United Auto Workers holding strikes in multiple states at American vehicle manufacturing facilities, including Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, for high pay, fewer hours per week and improved benefits. Another stipulation is ensuring manufacturing workers maintain job security during the industry transition to electric vehicles.
Democrats’ climate, taxes and social policy law provides tax credits for some electric vehicles, a policy Burgum criticized Wednesday.
Both Biden and Trump held events in Michigan this week, with Biden becoming the first sitting president to join a picket line with UAW workers at a Ford facility in Detroit Tuesday, and Trump holding an event just before the debate Wednesday at Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts shop, with some UAW members in attendance.
In the first question of the night, debate moderators asked Scott if he would fire the striking UAW workers if given the power. While the South Carolina Republican said the president does not have the power to fire private sector employees, he said Biden should be using his time elsewhere.
“We must make sure that we honor the commitments that we make,” Scott said. “And one of the ways that we do that: Do not overpromise and underdeliver, and leave the taxpayers on the hook. I’ll say this, Joe Biden should not be on the picket line. He should be on the Southern border working to close our Southern border.”
Ramaswamy said that the UAW workers should be striking at the White House instead of at manufacturing plants, because Americans’ fiscal woes come from “disastrous economic policies” passed in the nation’s capital.
“We needed to deliver economic growth in this country,” Ramaswamy said. “Unlock American energy – drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear energy, put people back to work by no longer paying them more money to stay at home, stabilize the U.S. dollar itself and rescind a majority of those unconstitutional federal regulations that are hampering our economy. That is how we unleash American exceptionalism.”
Christie and – briefly – DeSantis knock Trump
Trailing in the polls, two candidates – Christie and DeSantis – sought to bring Trump into the conversation, blasting the former president for skipping the debate.
Both mentioned Trump early, about 15 minutes into the debate.
Asked who was to blame for the impending partial shutdown of the federal government, Christie said everyone in Washington. He added that Trump should shoulder some blame for adding to the national debt during his four years in the White House and blasted Trump for being missing from the debate stage.
“Donald Trump, he hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer,” Christie said. “He puts $7 trillion on the debt. He should be in this room to answer those questions.”
DeSantis piled on.
“Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.”
Later, Christie spoke directly to the camera as he imagined Trump watching on television.
“You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record,” he said. “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 gonna call you Donald Duck.”
In a statement, Trump campaign senior advisor Chris LaCivita said the Republican National Committee should cancel future debates in deference to the former president.
“Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump,” LaCivita said. “The RNC should immediately put an end to any further primary debates so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White House.”
CBS News later reported LaCivita said Trump would also skip the next debate, scheduled for November in Miami.
Ramaswamy, Haley tussle
One candidate on stage, Ramaswamy, drew most of the attacks from his competitors, following the large share of attention he grabbed in the first debate.
In perhaps the most heated moment of Wednesday’s debate, Haley criticized Ramaswamy, the only candidate who has not held elected office and who spent much of the first debate attacking the other candidates.
Moderators asked Ramaswamy about joining the social media service TikTok. China critics in the U.S. have voiced concerns about the platform’s Chinese parent company, saying it presents a national security risk to provide the company user data on Americans. Congress banned the app on government devices this year.
Ramaswamy defended his move, saying it was necessary for Republicans to speak to young people.
Haley, a foreign policy hawk, jumped in.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she told Ramaswamy, adding that he was naively downplaying the threats TikTok poses. “What they’re doing is, 150 million people are on TikTok. That means they can get your contacts, they can get your financial information, they can get your emails.”
Scott also directed attacks at Ramaswamy, saying his biotech businesses did business with China’s Communist Party.
And Haley and Scott scuffled over their records on spending.
Scott said he supported an amendment to the Constitution to require the federal government to run a balanced budget.
Haley said Scott’s rhetoric didn’t match his record in Congress, which controls federal spending.
“He’s been there 12 years and he hasn’t done any of that,” she said.
Scott later said that as South Carolina governor, Haley raised gas taxes and accepted federal spending.
“Talk about someone who has never seen a federal dollar she doesn’t like,” he said.
Immigration center stage
One of the lengthier segments of the debate centered on immigration policy and border security, with the candidates nearly unanimously voicing criticisms of the Biden administration’s approach and pledging to block illegal migration.
Haley said Biden “waved the green flag” to encourage migration to the United States.
Christie said Biden “is doing nothing about enforcing” the law at the border. But Christie sounded one of the softer notes on immigration of the evening, saying those who seek to move to the country legally should be welcomed to help fill 6 million job openings.
Ramaswamy said he would “militarize” the border and eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants in the country without authorization — a position certain to be challenged under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
DeSantis also said he would “use the U.S. military to go after the Mexican drug cartels.”
The candidates said a porous border with Mexico was to blame for the supply of illegal drugs like fentanyl. Haley also tied immigration to crime in U.S. cities including Philadelphia, though data shows immigrants who entered the country illegally are much less likely to be arrested for violent crime.
Trump and abortion
Trump came under fire from some members of the GOP following a September interview on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he said he does not support the call for a 15-week federal abortion ban advocated by other candidates in the 2024 Republican field.
In Iowa, the former president said that the issue of abortion was one of the issues causing Republicans to lose ground in elections, pointing to the 2022 midterms when a predicted “red wave” failed to come to fruition in many states.
All ballot measures voted on in states following the fall of Roe v. Wade, in both red and blue states, supported access to the medical procedure.
Trump also criticized DeSantis, for signing into law a so-called “fetal heartbeat” measure that would prohibit most abortions after six weeks of gestation.
“I mean, (DeSantis) is willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban,” Trump said in the interview. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
The Florida governor on Wednesday night defended the state law he signed, as well as saying Republicans who oppose abortion rights did not need to cede ground on abortion in order to win elections.
“I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats,” DeSantis said. “I think there’s other reasons for that. The former president … He should be here explaining his comments, to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Christie said that he could use his experience as governor of a traditionally Democratic state to advocate and sign abortion laws as chief executive.
“What you need is a leader who can talk to people and make them understand that if you’re pro-life, you have to be proactive for the entire life, not just the nine months in the womb,” Christie said. “And we talked a lot about fentanyl tonight. We haven’t spoken one moment about treatment, but we need to make sure that for the drug-addicted 16-year-olds who are in the county lockup, their life is precious too. … if you’re pro-life, you’ve got to be pro-life for the entire life.”
Pence and Obamacare
Pence was asked about his claim before taking the vice presidency that he would repeal the mandates imposed by the health care law President Barack Obama signed in 2010, with the debate moderators saying that these promises were not kept during the Trump presidency.
While the former vice president first answered by discussing his support for the federal death penalty for mass shooters, Pence later said that he believes that continuing the Affordable Care Act is “one of the choices” available moving forward.
He compared his approach to that of his former running mate, Trump, who he said wants to consolidate power in the presidency and executive branch.
“It’s my intention to make the federal government smaller by returning to the states those resources and programs that are rightfully theirs under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution,” Pence said.
“That means all Obamacare, all of housing funding, all of HHS funding — all of it goes back to the states. We’ll shut down the federal Department of Education, we’ll allow states to innovate. We’re going to revive federalism in America, and states are going to help bring America back.”
DeSantis, when asked about the large numbers of people who are not insured, said that lack of health care coverage is a symptom of “national decline” in the American economy. DeSantis linked rising insurance costs to “Bidenomics.”
“What we need to do with health care is recognize our health care (system) is putting patients at the back of the bus,” DeSantis said. “We have big pharma, big insurance and big government, and we need to tackle that, and have more power for the people and the doctor-patient relationship.”
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