Who Won the Debate? Rivals Struggle to Shine With Trump Offstage

The second Republican president debate on Wednesday night featured personal and policy clashes between the candidates, plenty of fire directed at “Bidenomics,” and the taunting of former President Donald J. Trump, the front-runner who once again declined to join his rivals onstage.

Commentators were divided over who had the strongest performance, but most agreed that the debate likely did little to alter the trajectory of the race or eat into Mr. Trump’s 40-point lead in the polls. (In some surveys, that lead is 50 points.) Despite an attempt by Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, to bill Mr. Trump “Donald Duck” for ducking the debate, the no-show approach appears to be working.

“None of them created a memorable moment, so it all seemed like a missed opportunity,” said Monica Crowley, a conservative commentator who was a Treasury Department spokeswoman in the Trump administration. “Without an individual breakthrough, the dynamic of this race remains the same, with Trump on top by far.”

Though the debate lacked a clear breakout moment, pundits praised Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, and Tim Scott, a South Carolina senator, for some sharp exchanges. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been the runner-up in most polls, appeared to hold his own but is unlikely to gain ground on Mr. Trump.

Ron DeSantis

Mr. DeSantis has faced criticism for his awkwardness on the campaign trail and for seeming irascible on the debate stage. On Wednesday night, he won praise for a crisp and measured performance.

“He shot down bad faith arguments without seeming unpleasant and hit back with a record of achievements while rejecting clown show overtures,” said Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host and former spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. “Everyone else on that stage is auditioning for VP, cable news or a publisher.”

Mr. DeSantis appeared most comfortable discussing his economic record in Florida and striking a hawkish tone against China.

While he avoided any stumbles, he still lost style points with some viewers.

“Ron DeSantis, you do not need to smile the whole debate,” said Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor. “Whoever told you that misled you.”

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley, a former governor who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, once again demonstrated her dexterity with foreign and domestic policy.

Ms. Haley tangled with Mr. Scott, a former ally whom she appointed to the Senate when she was governor in 2012, but she also showed ability to shut down Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been an upstart candidate early in the race.

“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Ms. Haley told Mr. Ramaswamy during an exchange about his use of TikTok.

Such stingers drew plaudits from observers such as Katty Kay, the BBC correspondent.

“Haley is taking the fight to people onstage more than any of the others,” Ms. Kay said.

Tim Scott

For senators who are used to delivering long speeches without interruption in Washington, presidential debates can sometimes be a struggle.

Mr. Scott brought fresh energy to the debate, laying into Ms. Haley over gas taxes in South Carolina and even falsely accusing her of ordering expensive curtains for her apartment while she was U.N. ambassador.

“Tim Scott, who was almost vacant from the last debate, was much more aggressive here,” David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for President Barack Obama, said on CNN.

But Mr. Scott was also rebutted with relative ease, offering thin defenses for the federal debt that has mounted while he has been a senator and presenting his Senate committee seats as credentials that have prepared him to handle a crisis as president.

Donald Trump

Mr. Trump’s rivals confronted him more directly for his absence on Wednesday, daring him to defend his record.

Mr. DeSantis characterized Mr. Trump as “missing in action,” while Mr. Christie accused the former president of being afraid to join the other candidates onstage.

But beyond some gentle criticism of Mr. Trump for adding to the debt and failing to fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, the candidates largely laid off the former president.

After the debate, Mr. Trump’s campaign called on the Republican National Committee to cancel any future debates so that the party could focus on attacking President Biden.

“Only winner: Trump because he is not anywhere near,” the conservative radio host Glenn Beck wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.

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