5 Takeaways From Another Trump-Free Republican Debate

As he sat in the spin room with the Fox News host Sean Hannity after the second Republican debate on Wednesday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida accurately summed up the spectacle he had just participated in.

“If I was at home watching that,” Mr. DeSantis said, “I would have changed the channel.”

The meandering and at times indecipherable debate seemed to validate former President Donald J. Trump’s decision to skip it. With only occasional exceptions, the Republicans onstage seemed content to bicker with one another. Most of them delivered the dominant front-runner only glancing blows and did little to upend the political reality that Mr. Trump is lapping all of his rivals — whose cumulative support in most national polls still doesn’t come close to the former president’s standing.

Here are five takeaways from 120 minutes of cross-talk, unanswered questions, prepackaged comebacks and nary a word mentioning the heavy favorite’s legal jeopardy.

Punches grazed Trump, but the status quo remains.


DeSantis Calls Trump ‘Missing in Action’

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida derided former President Donald J. Trump for skipping the Republican presidential debate.

00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:01.140 Where’s Joe biden? 00:00:01.140 —> 00:00:03.840 He’s completely missing in action from leadership. 00:00:03.840 —> 00:00:06.200 And you know who else is missing in action? 00:00:06.200 —> 00:00:08.460 Donald Trump is missing in action. 00:00:08.460 —> 00:00:10.380 He should be on this stage tonight. 00:00:10.380 —> 00:00:14.990 He owes it to you to defend his record where they added 00:00:14.990 —> 00:00:17.250 $7.8 trillion to the debt. 00:00:17.250 —> 00:00:21.100 That set the stage for the inflation that we have now.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida derided former President Donald J. Trump for skipping the Republican presidential debate.CreditCredit…Courtesy of FOX Business

The first time he spoke, Mr. DeSantis finally took on Mr. Trump in front of a national audience.

“Donald Trump is missing in action,” Mr. DeSantis 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.”

Allies and some donors had long been itching for such forcefulness.

But by the end of the 120-minute slog of a debate, that line felt more like an aberration that blended into the background. The candidates mostly seemed to intentionally ignore Mr. Trump’s overwhelming lead — other than Mr. Christie, who took an awkward stab at a nickname (“Donald Duck”).


Christie Takes ‘Donald Duck’ Jab at Trump

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, said the former president was afraid to defend his record.

00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:01.500 I want to look in that camera right now 00:00:01.500 —> 00:00:03.375 and tell you, Donald, I know you’re watching. 00:00:03.375 —> 00:00:04.740 You can’t help yourself. 00:00:04.740 —> 00:00:06.565 I know you’re watching, OK. 00:00:06.565 —> 00:00:08.270 And you’re not here tonight, 00:00:08.270 —> 00:00:11.730 not because of polls and not because of your indictments. 00:00:11.730 —> 00:00:14.510 You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid 00:00:14.510 —> 00:00:17.040 of being on this stage and defending your record. 00:00:17.040 —> 00:00:18.338 You’re ducking these things. 00:00:18.338 —> 00:00:20.130 And let me tell you what’s going to happen. 00:00:20.130 —> 00:00:21.240 You keep doing that, 00:00:21.240 —> 00:00:22.170 no one up here is going 00:00:22.170 —> 00:00:23.280 to call you Donald Trump anymore. 00:00:23.280 —> 00:00:25.600 We’re going to call you Donald Duck.

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, said the former president was afraid to defend his record.CreditCredit…FOX Business

In a memo to donors before the debate, a pro-Mike Pence super PAC had a blunt take: “This race needs to be shaken up, and soon.”

The race seemed barely stirred.

The 91 criminal counts Mr. Trump is charged with went unmentioned — both by the moderators and the candidates ostensibly running against him. And while the former president did sustain more criticism than in the first debate, the seven candidates onstage spent most of the night poking at one another, in what could feel like a pitched battle for second place.

Tim Scott hit Nikki Haley over curtains and a gas tax. Ms. Haley sideswiped Mr. DeSantis over fracking. Vivek Ramaswamy was hit over his past business ties to China. And he accused everyone of not knowing the Constitution. Chris Christie tried to turn things back to Mr. Trump — suggesting at one point that he “be voted off the island.”

It all amounted to a muddy mess.

DeSantis offers a glimpse of what his supporters have wanted.

Mr. DeSantis’s allies believed that his first debate performance, despite some criticism from the news media about a seeming lack of aggressiveness, was effective. And they wanted a repeat performance.

They largely got it. Mr. DeSantis made the most of the night’s lone question on abortion to criticize Mr. Trump for attacking Florida’s restrictive six-week abortion ban. He largely evaded a question about his past remarks about his state’s curriculum on slavery, in which he suggested some enslaved people were taught valuable skills.

At the outset, Mr. DeSantis seemed assertive and in command. Other than an extended back-and-forth with Ms. Haley, he mostly avoided shouting matches.

He also did his best to find spots to enter the discussion, after being largely ignored by the Fox Business moderators for much of the first hour. That enraged his advisers, but he ultimately ended up speaking more than anyone.

He found a way to push back on the moderators at the end, when one asked the candidates to write on whiteboards which candidate they would vote “off the island.” As most of them shook their heads, Mr. DeSantis said the question was “disrespectful,” letting everyone else move on.

But his only glancing mentions of Mr. Trump made it hard to imagine the governor suddenly closing what has become a yawning gap with the former president. And, moments after the debate ended, Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump adviser, issued a statement calling for the Republican National Committee to cancel further debates, suggesting that Mr. Trump felt at least no immediate pressure to join the debating fray.

Haley cemented her spot near center stage.

Ms. Haley, whose solid performance at the first debate had ignited fresh interest from some major donors, appeared comfortable standing center stage. She took aim at Mr. DeSantis and fended off attacks from Mr. Scott, whom she first appointed to the Senate.


‘We Can’t Trust You’: Haley Bashes Ramaswamy for TikTok Use

“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Nikki Haley told Vivek Ramaswamy.

00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:02.540 “We’re only going to ever get to declaring independence 00:00:02.540 —> 00:00:05.900 from China, which I favor, if we actually win. 00:00:05.900 —> 00:00:08.480 So while the Democrats are running rampant, reaching 00:00:08.480 —> 00:00:10.440 the next generation, three to one, 00:00:10.440 —> 00:00:12.740 there’s exactly one person in the Republican Party, 00:00:12.740 —> 00:00:15.050 which talks a big game about reaching young people, 00:00:15.050 —> 00:00:15.960 and that’s me.” 00:00:15.960 —> 00:00:18.080 “This is infuriating because TikTok 00:00:18.080 —> 00:00:21.110 is one of the most dangerous social media apps 00:00:21.110 —> 00:00:22.070 that we could have. 00:00:22.070 —> 00:00:24.380 And what you’ve got — I honestly, every time I hear 00:00:24.380 —> 00:00:26.750 you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say 00:00:26.750 —> 00:00:28.780 because I can’t believe, 00:00:28.780 —> 00:00:31.470 they hear you’ve got a TikTok situation. 00:00:31.470 —> 00:00:35.640 What they’re doing is — 150 million people are on TikTok. 00:00:35.640 —> 00:00:37.393 That means they can get your contacts. 00:00:37.393 —> 00:00:39.060 They can get your financial information. 00:00:39.060 —> 00:00:40.140 They can get your emails. 00:00:40.140 —> 00:00:40.380 They can get —” 00:00:40.380 —> 00:00:41.040 “Let me just say —” 00:00:41.040 —> 00:00:41.700 “They can get your text messages. 00:00:41.700 —> 00:00:43.200 They can get all —” 00:00:43.200 —> 00:00:44.450 “This is very important for our party.” 00:00:44.450 —> 00:00:45.450 “China knows exactly what they’re doing.” 00:00:45.450 —> 00:00:46.740 This is very important for our party, 00:00:46.740 —> 00:00:47.320 and I’m going to say it.” 00:00:47.320 —> 00:00:49.940 “You’ve gone and you’ve helped China build, make medicines 00:00:49.940 —> 00:00:51.360 in China, not America.” 00:00:51.360 —> 00:00:51.930 “Excuse me, excuse me.” 00:00:51.930 —> 00:00:54.240 “You’re now wanting kids to go and get on this social media 00:00:54.240 —> 00:00:55.735 that’s dangerous for all of us. 00:00:55.735 —> 00:00:57.110 You went and you were in business 00:00:57.110 —> 00:00:59.570 with the Chinese that gave Hunter Biden $5 million. 00:00:59.570 —> 00:01:01.300 We can’t trust you. 00:01:01.300 —> 00:01:02.380 We can’t trust you. 00:01:02.380 —> 00:01:02.940 We can’t have TikTok —” 00:01:02.940 —> 00:01:04.120 “Let me say something —” 00:01:04.120 —> 00:01:05.120 “We can’t have TikTok in our kids’ lives. 00:01:05.120 —> 00:01:07.080 We need to ban it.”

“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Nikki Haley told Vivek Ramaswamy.CreditCredit…Courtesy of FOX Business

In between, she rattled off one of the evening’s more memorable lines — “every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she snapped at Mr. Ramaswamy as he talked about why he joined TikTok.

Ms. Haley, like Mr. DeSantis, targeted Mr. Trump, saying he had focused on the wrong issues — namely the trade deficit — while combating China’s growing influence. She ticked off a number of areas where he had left America vulnerable, including the foreign purchase of farmland and the operation of a Chinese spy base in Cuba.

“We need to start focusing on what keeps Americans safe,” she said.

More than anything else, Ms. Haley’s rising standing was confirmed by the fact that some rivals began to pick apart elements of her record as governor and United Nations ambassador.


Nikki Haley and Tim Scott Spar During Second Republican Debate

Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, two Republican presidential candidates with years of political history in South Carolina, had fiery exchanges over a state gas tax and curtains.

“Nikki offered a 10 percent — 10-cent gas tax increase in South Carolina. Talk about someone who has never seen a federal dollar she doesn’t like. Ten cents on the gallon in South Carolina. As the U.N. ambassador, you literally —” “Bring it.” “— put $50,000 on curtains and a $15 million subsidized location. Next —” “You got bad information. First of all, I fought the gas tax in South Carolina multiple times against the establishment —” “Just go to YouTube.” “Against the establishment.” “Just go to YouTube and see for yourself.” “You want to know what that 10 cents was? “Secondly —” “Exactly, Ron.” “Secondly, on the $50 million —” “Here is a nice part.” “Secondly, on the curtains, do your homework, Tim, because Obama bought those curtains.” “Did you send them back?” “It’s in the press.” “Did you send them back?” “It’s the State Department.” “Did you send them back?” “Did you send them back? You’re the one that works in Congress.” [unclear] “You hung them on your curtains.” “They were there before I even showed up at the residence. You are scrapping, you are scrapping. You know I fought taxes.” “Here’s the fact, though —” [unclear] “I loaded up our coffers —”

Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, two Republican presidential candidates with years of political history in South Carolina, had fiery exchanges over a state gas tax and curtains.CreditCredit…FOX Business

Mr. Scott at one point forced her into a detailed discussion of the gas tax in their state. But she seemed ready to engage.

“Bring it, Tim,” she told him.

Tim Scott reasserted himself.

Tim did, in fact, bring it.

The senator from South Carolina had faded into the backdrop of the first debate and slumped in the polls. But from the opening moments of Wednesday’s contest, he jostled for time and, notably, mixed up his sunny brand of optimism with some sharp jabs at both Mr. Ramaswamy and Ms. Haley.

Notably, he did not target Mr. Trump.

Perhaps his strongest moment of the evening came in the exchange with Mr. DeSantis over Florida’s curriculum on slavery. He mostly glided past the specifics — though he said there was “not a redeeming quality” in slavery — to talk about his life story and how it led to him standing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as the only Black candidate onstage.

“I have been discriminated against, but America is not a racist country,” he declared.

It was a line familiar to those who have seen him on the stump but squarely in line with his candidacy’s central pitch, and one he hopes can prevent him from falling further toward the periphery of the stage.


‘America Is Not a Racist Country,’ Tim Scott Says

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina claimed that America is headed in the right direction.

00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:04.320 Our nation continues to go in the right direction. 00:00:04.320 —> 00:00:07.590 It’s why I can say I have been discriminated against, 00:00:07.590 —> 00:00:11.430 but America is not a racist country. 00:00:11.430 —> 00:00:14.010 Never, ever doubt who we are. 00:00:14.010 —> 00:00:16.920 We are the greatest country on God’s green Earth. 00:00:16.920 —> 00:00:19.610 And frankly, the city on the hill 00:00:19.610 —> 00:00:21.300 needs a brand new leader. 00:00:21.300 —> 00:00:23.770 And I’m asking for your vote.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina claimed that America is headed in the right direction.CreditCredit…FOX Business

Ramaswamy showed a kinder, gentler side.

Immediately after the first debate, many pundits quickly declared Mr. Ramaswamy the winner. He drew outsize attention by shredding his opponents with personal attacks. At one point, he went so far as to accuse them of corruption, saying he was the only one onstage who wasn’t bought and paid for.

But the polling data that emerged after the debate did not support the narrative that he had won. Republican voters developed an increasingly negative view of Mr. Ramaswamy, and he is performing poorly in early-state polls compared with his relative strength in national online polls.

So on Wednesday night, it was Ramaswamy 2.0 — a conciliatory candidate who was chastising his competitors for attacking one another and repeatedly going out of his way to say how much he liked and respected them.

Instead, Mr. Christie filled the role of combatant-in-chief on Wednesday, from his new nickname for Mr. Trump to a cringe-inducing reference to President Biden’s “sleeping” with a teachers’ union member — his wife. (Mr. Pence, who was far less a presence than in the first debate, decided to inject that he’d been sleeping with a teacher for decades, too — also, his wife.)


Tim Scott Attacks Ramaswamy for His Connections to China

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina went after Vivek Ramaswamy for his remarks in the first debate that the candidates were “bought and paid for.”

00:00:00.000 —> 00:00:01.490 “We have a conversation about the things that 00:00:01.490 —> 00:00:02.685 are happening on this stage. 00:00:02.685 —> 00:00:04.310 We think about the fact that Vivek just 00:00:04.310 —> 00:00:06.680 said we were all good people, and I appreciate that 00:00:06.680 —> 00:00:07.800 because last debate 00:00:07.800 —> 00:00:09.812 he said we were all bought and paid for. 00:00:09.812 —> 00:00:12.020 And I thought about that for a little while and said, 00:00:12.020 —> 00:00:16.370 you know, I can’t imagine how you can say that knowing that 00:00:16.370 —> 00:00:20.390 you were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party 00:00:20.390 —> 00:00:24.380 and the same people that funded Hunter Biden 00:00:24.380 —> 00:00:26.390 millions of dollars was a partner of yours as well.” 00:00:26.390 —> 00:00:27.245 “This is nonsense.” 00:00:27.245 —> 00:00:28.310 “It’s not nonsense.” 00:00:28.310 —> 00:00:31.150 “So, look — I want to respond. 00:00:31.150 —> 00:00:33.020 These, these are good people who are 00:00:33.020 —> 00:00:34.920 tainted by a broken system. 00:00:34.920 —> 00:00:37.820 When every other C.E.O. expanded into the Chinese market, 00:00:37.820 —> 00:00:39.570 you know what I did with my first company? 00:00:39.570 —> 00:00:41.310 We opened a subsidiary in China. 00:00:41.310 —> 00:00:42.060 But you know what 00:00:42.060 —> 00:00:44.160 I did that was different than every other company? 00:00:44.160 —> 00:00:45.510 We got the hell out of there. 00:00:45.510 —> 00:00:46.900 And when I started my next company —” 00:00:46.900 —> 00:00:47.900 “Yeah, right before you ran for president.” 00:00:47.900 —> 00:00:48.390 “Strive, right — three years ago. 00:00:48.390 —> 00:00:48.890 When? 00:00:48.890 —> 00:00:50.340 three years ago.” 00:00:50.340 —> 00:00:50.840 “I’m glad 00:00:50.840 —> 00:00:52.610 Vivek pulled out of his business deal 00:00:52.610 —> 00:00:54.129 in 2018 in China. 00:00:54.129 —> 00:00:55.720 That must have been about the time 00:00:55.720 —> 00:00:57.870 you decided to start voting in presidential elections, 00:00:57.870 —> 00:00:59.242 so —”

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina went after Vivek Ramaswamy for his remarks in the first debate that the candidates were “bought and paid for.”CreditCredit…Courtesy of FOX Business

Nobody bought Mr. Ramaswamy’s reinvention. The other candidates seemed at times to be bonding over their shared disdain for him. Ms. Haley prompted laughs from the audience when said she felt dumber every time he talked. Mr. Scott attacked him for doing business in China. And apart from the attacks on Mr. Biden, the harshest lines of the night were aimed at Mr. Ramaswamy.

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