SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Several of Donald Trump’s rivals stepped up their attacks against him in the second Republican presidential debate, urgently trying to dent the former president's commanding primary lead during an event that often seemed like an undercard without him.
Trump went to Michigan, aiming to capitalize on the autoworkers’ strike in a key state that could help decide the general election. His competitors, meanwhile, were asked by Fox Business moderators at the Ronald Reagan library in California on Wednesday to participate in a reality show-style game in which they would write who else onstage they would vote "off the island.” They refused.
The debate’s tone was far removed from a campaign that’s been driven by Trump’s attacks on his rivals and democratic institutions as well as his grievances about a litany of criminal indictments and civil cases targeting him and his businesses. The moderators did not ask about the indictments or why the people onstage were better qualified than Trump, instead posing questions about issues including education, economic policy and the U.S.-Mexico border.
The candidates often went after Trump on their own, hoping to distinguish themselves at a critical moment with less than four months before the Iowa caucuses launch the presidential nomination process. Trump has continued to dominate the field even as he faces a range of vulnerabilities, including four criminal cases that raise the prospect of decades in prison.
“He should be on this stage tonight,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is attempting to establish himself as the leading Trump alternative despite recent struggles to break out from the rest of the pack. “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 we have now.”
Several others blistered Trump for not showing up, a departure from the first debate, when the field mostly lined up behind former president. DeSantis said just a few minutes in that President Joe Biden was “completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has built his campaign around criticizing Trump, said the former president “hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer.”
Even Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who has declared Trump to be the “best president of the 21st century,” distanced himself and argued he was a natural successor.
“Yes, I will respect Donald Trump and his legacy because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But we will unite this country to take the America First agenda to the next level. And that will take a different generation to do it.”
Trump gave a lengthy prime-time speech in suburban Detroit that continued into the start of the debate. The crowd booed when he referenced the debate. He joked, “We’re competing with the job candidates,” and poked fun at his rivals for not drawing crowds as large as his.
He told the conservative Daily Caller early Thursday that the GOP should cancel future debates “because it is just bad for the Republican Party.” The next debate is scheduled for Nov. 8 in Miami.
“There is not going to be a breakout candidate,” he said.
Even hours before the debate began in Simi Valley, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the first group of supporters for any campaign to arrive waved Trump flags and put up a banner reading “Trump, our last hope for America and the world.”
His rivals seemed to sense his command over the field on Wednesday and did their best to change the direction of the race.
“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” Christie said. “You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen. You keep doing that, no one here’s going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, drew larger crowds and new interest after the first debate. Her team raised expectations prior to Wednesday's debate ahead of an expected campaign swing in Iowa.
Haley accused Trump of not being tough enough on China while he was president. She picked multiple fights with Ramaswamy, as she did in August. She assailed him for creating a campaign account on TikTok, the social media app that many Republicans criticize as a possible spy tool for China.
“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Haley said.
Haley also fought with Sen. Tim Scott, her fellow South Carolinian and once her pick to fill the state’s open Senate seat. As Scott accused Haley of backing a gas tax as South Carolina governor and upgrading the curtains in her office as United Nations ambassador, Haley responded, “Bring it, Tim.”
After a first debate in which he assailed rivals and derided the rest of the field as “bought and paid for," Ramaswamy tried to show a softer side when Haley and others went after him. After Haley's attack on his use of TikTok, Ramaswamy said, “I think we would be better served as a Republican Party if we’re not sitting here hurling personal insults.”
DeSantis sniped at Ramaswamy and so did Pence, suggesting that he’d failed to vote in many past elections. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum steered clear of Ramaswamy, but repeatedly jumped in to answer questions he wasn't asked to get himself more screen time in the debate's early going. He repeatedly shouted for attention from the left end of the stage, leading a moderator to threaten to cut his microphone.
In one awkward exchange, two candidates made references to sex in talking about teachers unions. “When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you can take the stranglehold away from the teachers union,” Christie said at one point, referencing first lady Jill Biden’s teaching career and longtime membership in the National Education Association.
A short time later, Pence turned to Christie: “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years. Full disclosure.” His wife, Karen, is a teacher.
The night concluded with the moderators noting that it was unlikely a divided field could stop Trump, but then asking candidates to say who they would vote off the island, an apparent reference to the “Survivor” reality show. The proposed game didn't get far as DeSantis suggested it was insulting.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only candidate not on the second debate's stage after qualifying for the first one. He too headed to suburban Detroit, saying, “Donald Trump is here in Detroit tonight because he wants to avoid a debate."
Wednesday's site was symbolic given that Reagan has long been a Republican icon whose words and key moments still shape GOP politics today.
But in addition to fighting with the library's leaders, Trump has reshaped the party and pushed it away from Reagan. The second debate's participants were largely respectful of all that Reagan stood for — but also didn't distance themselves much from Trump's major policy beliefs.
Democrats, meanwhile, argued the debate didn't matter. Biden was in California at the same time, raising money in the San Francisco Bay Area for his reelection campaign, which at the moment is likely to be a rematch with Trump.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom was in Simi Valley representing the Biden campaign and offering zingers to reporters about the debate, saying it was like a junior varsity or minor league game.
“This is a sideshow by any objective measure,” Newsom said in an interview.
Weissert reported from Washington.
Will Weissert, Steve Peoples And Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press