Former President Donald Trump may not have been present at the second Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, but plenty of the Republican candidates took swipes at the former president as much as they attacked each other on the debate stage.
Despite the sunny disposition of the library’s namesake, the debate often devolved into a slugfest, with the candidates talking over each other with very little that could be heard. Similarly, since the debate moderators could not question Mr Trump, the candidates often attacked each other on their records.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump holds what might be an insurmountable lead in the polls as he held a rally in Detroit instead of joining the other candidates onstage.
Here are our winners and losers:
Winner: Ron DeSantis
For the past few months, the Florida governor has been plagued by attacks from the former president, who has taken to calling him “DeSanctimonious.” But right out the gate, Mr DeSantis took a swipe at his former political benefactor and was able to double-barrel an attack on President Joe Biden as well.
“Donald Trump is missing an 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 that set the stage for the inflation that we have.”
Similarly, Mr DeSantis was able to tout his record as governor, which was the whole reason that many Republican donors fell in love with him to begin with. He earned large applause lines throughout the debate.
Neutral: Sen Tim Scott
For the duration of his tenure in politics, the South Carolina Republican has largely been a happy warrior. That has earned him praise from donors, conservative activists and fellow senators, but to improve his station in the polls, he needed to develop some sharper elbows.
But that meant he engaged in a shouting match with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, criticising him for saying that the other candidates were “bought and paid for” and accusing him of being in league with the Chinese Communist Party and associates of Hunter Biden. That aggressive approach often came off as contrived and his message got muddled.
Their exchange in turn came off as petty and prevented a more substantive discussion that could have elevated Mr Scott. What he hoped would be a knock-out punch turned into a slugfest that knocked out a few of his teeth.
At the same time, he used a question to rebut Mr DeSantis’s curriculum in Florida, saying there were no redeeming qualities in slavery. He also discussed his experiences as a Black man who has faced discrimination while reassuring conservatives that America is not a racist country, while also criticising government assistance to the poor in the library of the president who perpetuated the idea of welfare queens in political dialogue. That earned him cheers.
Loser: Chris Christie
Debates have often been the former New Jersey governor’s strong suit. He notoriously sank Senator Marco Rubio’s bid for the White House in 2016 during one such exchange. While his poll numbers have increased in recent months, he continues to be far behind Mr Trump. In the last debate, he regularly attacked Mr Trump’s alleged violations of the rule of law with the most tact.
But his success may have gone to his head this go around. At one point, he directly addressed Mr Trump, saying “Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself” before mocking him for avoiding the debate. It would have been a pitch-perfect line had it not been for what came next when he said, “if you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They will call you Donald Duck.” The line was corny, contrived and all too canned for someone who usually delivers wise guy cracks.
But his true below-the-belt moment came when he took an attack on teachers’ unions, his longtime enemy since he was New Jersey governor, and tried to toggle the attack toward Mr Biden. But instead, he took it to the gutter by attacking Mr Biden’s wife, Dr Jill Biden, a professor at a community college, by saying, “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.”
Winner: Nikki Haley
The former South Carolina governor has surged in the polls in recent months. That has given her the opportunity to earn money from donors and support from activists, even though she still faces a long shot to bear Mr Trump (she still trails him even in her home state).
And indeed, throughout much of the debate, she did not engage in the mudslinging from the men on the stage. Similarly, she took many well-earned swipes against Mr Ramaswamy, whom she seems to have a special level of contempt for. Specifically, she told the political neophyte, “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”
As Mr DeSantis’s poll numbers continue to decline, anti-Trump Republicans–or at least Republicans who think he would lose the presidency–will inevitably look for a new hope and this performance will certainly inspire confidence.
Neutral: Vivek Ramaswamy
Last go-around, the businessman-turned-presidential-candidate faced the business end of most attacks from his opponents. That earned him a few weeks of attention before he slowly started to fade into the background.
But – to borrow from the rapper whose songs he likes to cover – Wednesday meant it was back to reality. He faced occasional attacks from former vice president Mike Pence and Ms Haley, which once again highlighted his lack of experience and grasp on policy.
At the same time, he did what he mastered in the last debate: planting himself deeply beneath the skin of his opponents. He got the better of Mr Scott in their exchange when he said “Thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting.”
Still, this performance will likely not raise or decrease his standing.
Loser: Mike Pence
Most Republican primary voters will likely never forgive the former vice president for his refusal to go along with Mr Trump’s scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
That being said, throughout the night, he did himself no favours, often coming off as stiff and stilted. In response to Mr Christie’s nasty quip about Mr Biden and his wife, Mr Pence said, “I’ve got to admit I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years. Full disclosure.” It elicited nervous laughter.
In addition, he likely hoped for soaring applause when he called for an expedited death penalty for mass shooters, but got zero response. Furthermore, when he tried to shift the question from moderator Dana Perino about Obamacare to his preferred topic, she asked bluntly, “Does that mean Obamacare is here to stay?”
Honorary winners: Ilia Calderón and Dana Perino
Throughout the debate, Ms Perino, a former White House press secretary in the George W Bush White House, not only asked some of the most pointed questions, but also helped wrangle the multi-candidate field back to the main topics. When Gov Doug Burgum wanted to blurt out a response when it wasn’t his turn, she said simply “No, Gov Haley.”
Similarly, fellow moderator Ilia Calderón, a journalist for Univision, asked some of the most incisive questions about Florida’s curriculum around slavery, which elicited Mr Scott’s best response. She also pointedly that “73 per cent of Latinos think Republicans don’t think you care about them,” which forced the GOP to reckon with the fact they will need to win over a large swath of these voters should they want to take back the White House.