July 13, 2024

The seven candidates left in the campaign for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination spent their second somewhat chaotic debate attacking absent frontrunner Donald Trump and tussling over issues including immigration.

The debate in the western state of California was another opportunity for Trump’s rivals to chip away at his massive lead among voters before the primary process kicks off in the state of Iowa in January.

Seven candidates made the cut – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

The 77-year-old Trump skipped the event for a second time – instead, travelling to Michigan to join striking autoworkers, a day after US President Joe Biden, who will run for a second term in 2024, joined the picket line.

“They’re all job candidates,” Trump said dismissively of his rival Republicans. “Does anybody see any VP in the group? I don’t think so.”

Here are the main takeaways from the second debate, which took place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Attacking Trump

After months of avoiding direct confrontation, DeSantis appeared to have decided it was time to go on the offensive against Trump, who faces four separate indictments – on election interference, allegations he mishandled secret government documents, and a hush money payment to an adult film star.

It was 16 minutes before the Florida Governor got to speak – but when he did, he condemned the former president as “missing in action”.

Sharpening his critique of the man whose endorsement he once embraced, DeSantis blamed Trump for adding trillions of dollars to the US national debt.

“He should be on this stage tonight,” 45-year-old DeSantis said, drawing applause and some cheers from the audience at the event moderated by Fox Business and Univision. “He owes it to you to defend his record.”

Less surprisingly, Christie, who has built his campaign around criticising Trump, also chimed in, looking directly into the camera to accuse the former president of being afraid.

“You’re ducking these things, and let me tell you what’s going to happen. You keep doing that, no one up here is gonna call you Donald Trump any more. We’re gonna call you a Donald Duck,” he said, to a chorus of boos.

Other candidates focused more on the former president’s platform and record in office.

Pence, who was Trump’s vice president from 2017-2021, offered a mild critique of Trump’s desire to centralise power in the federal government, vowing to give power back to the states.

While Haley said Trump had taken the wrong approach to China by focusing on trade, rather than broader security issues.

Talking tough on immigration

A clip of Reagan, the US’s 40th president, calling for an “amnesty” for people in the US illegally was played ahead of a question on immigration policy.

The candidates’ responses showed just how far to the right the Republican party has moved since.

Christie, who once represented a Democratic state and backed a similar proposal a decade ago, distanced himself from Reagan’s call, saying it was effectively ancient history.

“We’re no longer in a position to do that any more,” Christie said, stressing he would send the National Guard to the US-Mexico border “on Day One”.

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, went a step further, calling for an end to foreign aid to Latin America until the border was secured.

“Only when we fix the immigration system, only when we make the border secure, should we ever put more money into this,” she said.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, also the son of Indian immigrants, jumped in to highlight his proposal to revoke US citizenship for children born in the country to parents in the US illegally.

“If the kid of a Mexican diplomat doesn’t enjoy birthright citizenship, then neither does the kid of an illegal migrant who broke the law to come here,” the entrepreneur said.

Vivek Ramaswamy on the defensive

The entrepreneur and political novice had a breakout moment in the first debate, positioning himself as a Trump-like outsider and attacking his rivals as part of the establishment.

Currently polling in third place, Ramaswamy appeared to take a more conciliatory approach this time around.

“These are good people on this stage,” he declared at the start of the debate, and later repeatedly cited Reagan’s so-called “11th commandment” to never criticise another Republican.

He still came under frequent attack from the other candidates, however.

“Every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber,” Haley responded after Ramaswamy defended joining TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media site that has raised security concerns among US officials. Ramaswamy said he uses the app to connect with young voters.

Cringeworthy moments

There were some cringeworthy moments as the candidates tried to land zinging retorts with the potential to go viral on social media.

Pence was so eager to use his one-liner that he decided to deploy it in response to an earlier question about the United Auto Workers strike rather than the one he had actually been asked.

“Joe Biden doesn’t belong on the picket line,” Pence joked. “He belongs on the unemployment line”

There was no roar of laughter.

Christie, meanwhile, took time off from bashing Trump to talk about the power of teachers’ unions, only to leave the audience squirming.

Trying to suggest the influence of the unions on Biden’s White House, he declared the president was “sleeping with a member of the teachers union” apparently in reference to First Lady Jill Biden, who is a community college teacher and member of the National Education Association.

Then, rather than avoiding the uncomfortable subject of private marital relations, Pence also dived into the issue.

Given a chance to answer a question related to education, he referred to his own wife’s work as a teacher.

“I gotta admit, I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” Pence said.

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