In the aftermath of the second Republican debate, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida shared his candid assessment of the event while sitting in the spin room with Fox News host Sean Hannity. He remarked, “If I was at home watching that, I would have changed the channel.” The debate unfolded as a meandering and often bewildering spectacle, seemingly validating former President Donald J. Trump’s decision to skip it. Apart from sporadic exceptions, the Republican contenders appeared content to engage in petty disputes among themselves. They largely refrained from delivering significant blows to the dominant front-runner, failing to disrupt the political reality that Mr. Trump continues to overshadow his rivals in national polls.
Here are five key takeaways from the two-hour debate characterized by overlapping conversations, unanswered questions, rehearsed comebacks, and a conspicuous absence of any mention of the legal issues surrounding the favored candidate:
Governor DeSantis of Florida initiated the debate by confronting Mr. Trump on a national stage, asserting, “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. That set the stage for the inflation that we have now.” This direct challenge had been long awaited by some allies and donors. However, as the debate progressed, this statement faded into the background, with candidates mostly choosing to ignore Mr. Trump’s commanding lead.
A pro-Mike Pence super PAC had issued a blunt message to donors before the debate, emphasizing the need to shake up the race. Nevertheless, the debate failed to produce any substantial disruptions, leaving the dynamics of the race largely unaltered. The 91 criminal charges against Mr. Trump went unmentioned, both by the moderators and the candidates ostensibly running against him. While the former president faced more criticism compared to the first debate, the seven candidates onstage spent most of the night engaging in disputes with one another, seemingly vying for the second-place position.
During the debate, Tim Scott directed criticism at Nikki Haley concerning curtains and a gas tax, and Ms. Haley reciprocated by challenging Governor DeSantis on fracking. Vivek Ramaswamy faced scrutiny over his past business dealings with China and was accused by Scott of lacking knowledge about the Constitution. Chris Christie attempted to steer the conversation back towards Mr. Trump, even suggesting at one point that he should be “voted off the island.” However, the overall result was a chaotic and unclear exchange.
Governor DeSantis’s performance aligned with what his supporters had been anticipating. Despite initial criticism from the media about his lack of assertiveness in the first debate, his allies believed it was effective. In this debate, he utilized the sole abortion question of the night to criticize Mr. Trump for his stance on Florida’s restrictive abortion ban. He skillfully sidestepped a question about his previous comments regarding slavery in the state’s curriculum. At the outset, Governor DeSantis appeared confident and in control, mostly avoiding heated arguments. Although he struggled initially to find speaking opportunities, he eventually spoke more than any other candidate. Towards the end, he pushed back against the moderators when they asked candidates to indicate which candidate they would vote “off the island,” deeming the question “disrespectful.”
Despite Governor DeSantis’s assertiveness, his sporadic references to Mr. Trump did little to suggest that he could close the substantial gap between himself and the former president. Shortly after the debate concluded, a senior Trump adviser, Chris LaCivita, called for the cancellation of further debates, indicating that Mr. Trump felt no immediate pressure to enter the debate arena.
Nikki Haley solidified her position at the center stage during the debate. Following her strong performance in the first debate, which had sparked renewed interest from major donors, Ms. Haley appeared comfortable in the spotlight. She took aim at Governor DeSantis and defended herself against attacks from Tim Scott, whom she had appointed to the Senate. She even delivered one of the more memorable lines of the evening, telling Vivek Ramaswamy, “every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.” Ms. Haley, like Governor DeSantis, took aim at Mr. Trump, suggesting that he had focused on the wrong issues in dealing with China’s growing influence and highlighting areas where he had left America vulnerable. Her rising stature was further confirmed as rivals began to scrutinize elements of her record as governor and United Nations ambassador.
Tim Scott reasserted himself in this debate after fading into the background during the first one. He had experienced a decline in the polls following the initial debate but made a strong comeback. From the beginning of the contest, he actively sought speaking time and integrated his trademark optimism with pointed criticisms directed at both Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley. Notably, he refrained from targeting Mr. Trump. His standout moment came during an exchange with Governor DeSantis on Florida’s curriculum regarding slavery, where he chose to emphasize his life story and emphasize his belief that America is not a racist country.
Vivek Ramaswamy adopted a different approach in this debate compared to the first one. In the prior debate, he gained attention by launching personal attacks on his opponents and accusing them of corruption. However, polling data following the debate did not support the narrative of his victory. Republican voters developed a more negative perception of him, and he struggled in early-state polls compared to his performance in national online polls. Consequently, Ramaswamy adopted a conciliatory tone in this debate, chastising his competitors for attacking each other and repeatedly expressing his respect for them. However, this reinvented persona failed to resonate, as the other candidates at times appeared to bond over their shared disapproval of him. Ms. Haley even elicited laughter from the audience when she remarked that she felt “dumber every time he talked,” while Tim Scott criticized his business ties to China. Overall, aside from the critiques directed at President Biden, the harshest criticisms of the night were aimed at Mr. Ramaswamy.