© Reuters. Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a 2024 presidential election campaign event at Sportsman Boats in Summerville, South Carolina, U.S. September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Sam Wolfe/ File Photo
By Tim Reid and Joseph Ax
SIMI VALLEY, California (Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called Donald Trump “missing in action” for skipping Wednesday’s second Republican presidential debate, where he and a half-dozen others sought a breakout moment that could weaken the former president’s commanding hold on the primary contest.
“He should be on this stage tonight,” DeSantis said, drawing applause from the audience at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California. “He owes it to you to defend his record.”
The dig from DeSantis, whose poll numbers have declined after having been widely seen as the leading Trump alternative, suggested he was more willing to attack the frontrunner after months of largely avoiding direct confrontation.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a frequent Trump critic, chimed in, saying Trump is “afraid” and mocking him as “Donald Duck” for skipping the debate.
Mike Pence, vice president under Trump from 2017-2021, said he would take an opposite approach to Trump if elected. He said Trump planned to centralize power in the federal government but he would give more power to the states.”States are going to help bring America back,” he said.
But the other contenders trained their fire on Democratic President Joe Biden – and on each other, as the debate occasionally devolved into chaos with candidates shouting over one another on issues from China to the economy to immigration.
Often they talked over one another as moderators struggled to rein them in.
All of the candidates vowed to take a hard line on immigration and attacked the Biden administration for failing to stem the migrant crisis that has fueled record illegal crossings at the southern border.
The seven candidates are vying with Trump to become their party’s nominee to face Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, in the November 2024 election.
Trump, who led his nearest rival for the nomination by 37 percentage points in the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, skipped the debate, as he did the first one in Wisconsin last month.
Instead, minutes before the debate kicked off, Trump was on stage in the battleground state of Michigan, delivering a speech to Detroit autoworkers and inserting himself into a national dispute between striking workers and the country’s leading automakers a day after Biden joined a union picket line.
“They’re all job candidates,” Trump said dismissively of the seven Republicans at the debate. “Does anybody see any VP in the group? I don’t think so.”
By shunning both debates, the former president signaled he was focused on Biden, his once and perhaps future opponent, rather than the Republican contenders who trail badly in the polls.
With less than four months until Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Republican nominating contest, Trump’s rivals are running short on time to alter the dynamics of a race that Trump has dominated since he announced his re-election campaign 10 months ago.
Wednesday’s debate loomed particularly large for DeSantis, whose campaign has already endured two staff shakeups as donors expressed concern about his inability to gain on Trump.
DeSantis, 45, made his name nationally by opposing many U.S. government policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He has since become a leading figure fighting what he argues are overly progressive policies favored by educators and corporations.
Former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s standing improved after a strong debate performance last month, and another solid outing could convince some Republican donors she has the best odds of unseating Trump.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum also qualified for the debate.
IMMIGRATION IN FOCUS
Immigration took center stage during the debate.
DeSantis promised to deploy the U.S. military against Mexican cartels, while entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said he would try to revoke birthright citizenship for the children of those who entered the country illegally.
Even when asked about the expanding U.S. autoworkers’ strike, Senator Tim Scott turned the subject to the border while criticizing Biden for joining the picket line on Tuesday.
“Biden should not be on the picket line,” Scott said. “He should be on the southern border working to close our southern border because it is unsafe, wide open and insecure, leading to the deaths of 70,000 Americans in the last 12 months because of fentanyl.”
Trump’s myriad legal problems went unmentioned during the debate’s first hour. The 77-year-old businessman-turned-politician has been indicted in four criminal cases, and on Tuesday, a New York state judge found that he committed fraud by inflating the value of his business assets.
The Republican National Committee, which organizes the debates, picked the Fox Business Network to host the event, alongside Univision, the U.S.-based Spanish-language TV channel, and Rumble, an online video platform popular with conservatives.
Stuart Varney, a Fox Business Network anchor and one of the debate moderators, told Reuters the candidates would be questioned on a range of issues, including immigration, inflation, crime and foreign policy.