The second Republican presidential primary debate, hosted by Fox Business Network at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 27, 2023, was a contrast to the first one in many ways. The stage was smaller, with only seven candidates qualifying for the main event. The front-runner, former President Donald Trump, was absent, holding his own rally in Michigan instead. And the tone was more subdued, with less personal attacks and more policy discussions.
However, that does not mean the debate was dull or uneventful. There were still plenty of clashes and memorable moments, as the candidates tried to make their case to the voters and distinguish themselves from their rivals. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights of the night.
Haley takes on DeSantis and Ramaswamy
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was arguably the most aggressive and effective debater of the night. She did not shy away from challenging her opponents, especially Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who are seen as her main competitors for the anti-Trump wing of the party.
Haley criticized DeSantis for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Florida, accusing him of being too lax on public health measures and putting lives at risk. She also questioned his loyalty to Trump, pointing out that he had skipped some of his rallies and had not endorsed him for 2024 yet.
Haley also attacked Ramaswamy for his business ties to China and his lack of political experience. She said he was not qualified to be commander-in-chief and that he would be a gift to Russia and Iran if he became president. She also mocked his claim that he was a “know-it-all” who would seek advice from others.
Haley’s performance was praised by many pundits and analysts, who said she had boosted her chances of becoming the alternative to Trump in the race.
Ramaswamy struggles to defend himself
Vivek Ramaswamy, the billionaire founder of a biotech company who has been running as an outsider and a disruptor, had a rough night. He was the target of several attacks from his rivals, who questioned his credentials, his policies, and his character.
Ramaswamy faced criticism from South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who accused him of being a hypocrite for denouncing woke culture while profiting from it. Scott said Ramaswamy had made millions from selling drugs that were marketed to minorities and women based on their identity.
Ramaswamy also faced heat from former Vice President Mike Pence, who slammed him for his proposal to withdraw US troops from Ukraine and let Russia have its way. Pence said Ramaswamy’s plan would betray America’s allies and embolden its enemies.
Ramaswamy tried to defend himself by saying he was a patriot who wanted to put America first and that he had a vision for a new era of innovation and prosperity. He also said he was not afraid to take on the establishment and the media.
However, Ramaswamy’s responses did not seem to resonate with the audience or the viewers. He failed to generate any applause or cheers and appeared defensive and flustered at times. His performance was widely panned by commentators and observers, who said he had lost momentum and credibility in the race.
DeSantis plays it safe
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who has been leading in some polls among the candidates who are not Trump, had a relatively quiet night. He did not engage much with his rivals or make any bold statements or proposals. He mostly stuck to his talking points about his record in Florida, his support for Trump’s agenda, and his opposition to Biden’s policies.
DeSantis did face some criticism from Haley and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who challenged him on his Covid-19 response and his loyalty to Trump. However, DeSantis did not seem too bothered by their attacks and brushed them off with confidence.
DeSantis also tried to appeal to the conservative base by highlighting his stance on issues such as immigration, abortion, gun rights, and education. He said he would defend America’s sovereignty, protect the unborn, uphold the Second Amendment, and ban critical race theory in schools.
DeSantis’s performance was seen as solid but not spectacular by many analysts and experts. They said he had done enough to maintain his position in the race but not enough to expand his appeal or break away from the pack.
Other candidates fail to make an impact
The other candidates on the stage — Pence, Christie, Scott, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum — did not have much of an impact on the debate or the race. They mostly repeated their standard arguments and positions without offering anything new or exciting.
Pence tried to tout his experience as vice president under Trump and his conservative credentials on issues such as foreign policy, national security, and religious liberty. However, he did not address the elephant in the room — his rift with Trump over the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection. He also did not seem to have a clear strategy or message for his campaign.
Christie tried to portray himself as a pragmatic and experienced leader who could get things done and work with both parties. He also tried to contrast himself with Trump, saying he was not a “showman” but a “doer”. However, he did not offer any compelling reasons why voters should choose him over the other candidates or Trump.
Scott tried to emphasize his personal story as a black man who rose from poverty to become a successful businessman and politician. He also tried to present himself as a unifier who could appeal to a diverse coalition of voters and heal the divisions in the country. However, he did not have much of a policy agenda or a vision for the future.
Burgum tried to introduce himself to the national audience as the governor of an energy state who had balanced the budget, cut taxes, and created jobs. He also tried to stress his independence and his willingness to work with anyone who had good ideas. However, he did not have much of a presence or charisma on the stage and did not stand out from the crowd.
The second Republican debate was a mixed bag for the candidates and the party. It showed that there is still no clear alternative or challenger to Trump, who remains the dominant force in the race. It also showed that there is still a lot of uncertainty and diversity among the voters, who have not made up their minds yet. The race is still wide open and anything can happen.