The second 2024 Republican primary debate provided political fireworks as candidates not named Donald Trump sought the money and support they need to sustain their campaigns through the fall and winter.
Underneath the harsh lights and decommissioned Air Force One in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, the seven participating candidates — Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) — competed for airtime to make their case why they should be the party’s alternative to Trump.
Here are the Washington Examiner’s winners and losers:
DeSantis took his place behind the podium for the second debate facing the greatest expectations — and pressure. The Florida governor, who earlier in the evening celebrated his 14th wedding anniversary, was largely ignored during his first outing, his campaign contending that was him staying above the fray. But he inserted himself more into the discussion Wednesday, trying to strike a balance between assertiveness and likeability, a dynamic that has caused him issues throughout his bid.
“Where is Joe Biden? He is completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action,” he said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt.”
DeSantis also sought to distinguish himself on foreign policy regarding China and the southern border, perceived as a weakness considering his gubernatorial experience. He additionally had a solid moment talking about Florida’s education positions, though he was criticized over Ukraine and energy.
But Trump remains a problem for DeSantis, according to Republican strategist and founding partner of GOP lobbying firm Navigators Global, Cesar Conda.
“Despite shots early on from DeSantis and Christie, no one has laid a glove on Trump,” he told the Washington Examiner. “He’ll still be leading in the pools by 40-50 percentage points over the other Republicans. Nikki Haley is by far the best communicator. DeSantis is having a strong performance.”
Scott’s happy warrior political persona and slower speaking cadence is an imperfect fit for debates where candidates are incentivized to criticize one another and are up against a clock to do it. The South Carolina senator was asked the first question of the night, one about the economy and the UAW strike, scrutinizing Biden for visiting the picket line and not the border.
Scott later singled out Ramaswamy for saying during the first debate he was “the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for,” alleging he was “in business” with the Chinese Community Party and the same people who funded Hunter Biden.
“This is a debate between you and you,” the senator said amid cross-talk as other candidates also attacked him.
“Thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting,” Ramaswamy mistakenly responded during the chaos.
Scott additionally had a moment discussing slavery before clashing with Haley, his South Carolina compatriot.
Christie’s campaign is premised on the primary debates, though he would prefer to go head-to-head with Trump. Although the former governor was booed during the first debate, the former New Jersey governor was advantaged by a friendlier audience curated by the Reagan Foundation and Institute. He was the first to urge Trump to debate and criticized the former president’s border policies.
“Donald Trump hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us,” the governor said. “He put $7 trillion on the debt; he should be in this room to answer those questions.”
“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” he added later. “You’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record … You keep doing that, nobody up here’s gonna keep calling you Donald Trump, we’re gonna call you Donald Duck.”
But Christie also made a questionable comment about Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden: “When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you could take the stranglehold away.”
Haley, who donned a red suit dress on Wednesday, surprised many pundits with her good showing during the first debate, and she managed to notch in a similar performance during the second.
“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she told Ramaswamy during an exchange about China and TikTok.
Haley also had a moment criticizing DeSantis’s energy record in Florida concerning fracking.
Ramaswamy was at the center of the first debate, the target for personal and policy criticism, as he was during the second. But with the shock and awe of the fast-talking, millennial biotechnology entrepreneur dissipating, his positions were more exposed. He used his time to reintroduce himself to the public, saying, “I don’t know it all,” yet later adding, “transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder.”
“The other GOP candidates really don’t like Vivek,” Conda, the Republican strategist, said. “They all have taken shots at him — many of them landing — especially Haley. His 15 minutes of fame is over.”
Pence’s commanding presence during the first debate was a surprise. The candidate who most identifies with Reagan drew an early contrast with Scott, saying Biden did “not belong on a picket line, “he belongs on the unemployment line.” But that line and another criticizing Ramaswamy for divesting from China in 2018, about the time he “decided to start voting in presidential elections,” fell flat.
“My wife isn’t a member of the teachers union, but I’ve got to admit I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” he also said after Christie’s comment about the Bidens. “Full disclosure.”
Despite Burgum-aligned Best of America PAC spending $8 million to promote the North Dakota governor’s candidacy, he was a non-entity during the first and second debates, though he did qualify, unlike former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd.
Burgum did insist on commenting on the UAW strike, saying Biden was responsible because he had meddled in private markets with electric vehicle subsidies. He also interjected himself in the childcare conversation with that argument.
“We will get you some questions,” Fox News host Dana Perino told him. She later threatened to cutoff the sound to his microphone and redirected an energy question to Haley.