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Gloves come off at Republican debate

The candidates traded punches while former President Donald Trump campaigned in Detroit


GOP presidential candidates prepare to debate Wednesday night. Associated Press/Photo by Mark J. Terrill

Gloves come off at Republican debate

Seven Republican candidates gathered in the sunlit auditorium of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday. Fox News again moderated the debate, this time with three anchors who asked a variety of questions ranging from border policies to abortion. Interruptions and verbal jabs flew fast on stage. For this second matchup, the participants turned more aggressive, and moderators at one point cut the candidates’ microphones to continue the program.

The minimum qualifications were stricter this time around. The Republican National Committee kept the loyalty pledge required of all attendees to support the eventual Republican nominee and not to participate in any non-RNC presidential debates. (DeSantis’ upcoming debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom does not violate this clause because it is not a presidential matchup.) Qualifying candidates also needed 70,000 individual donors, an increase of 20,000 from the last debate. And they needed at least 3 percent support in two national polls or the same in one national poll plus two early primary state polls.

All polling data is current as of Wednesday, Sept. 27. The first poll listed is an aggregate from RealClearPolitics.

Ron DeSantis

The Florida governor enjoyed a brief bump in the polls following the first debate, even though he did not get much screen time. On Wednesday night, he attempted to correct the course. In the past month, the super political action committee affiliated with DeSantis, Never Back Down, closed door-knocking operations in Nevada along with California, North Carolina, and Texas—all Super Tuesday states. Officials said this was to reinvest in New Hampshire and Iowa, which have earlier primaries and caucuses. On the stage, he repeated several times that elites in Washington do not care about the average voter and have failed to pass effective conservative policies.

  • Pro-life: DeSantis said he can achieve federal pro-life policies because he did so in Florida. Earlier this year, he signed a bill that protects unborn life past six weeks of pregnancy. He rejected any claims, even from Trump, that pro-life positions contributed to Republican losses in the midterm elections..
  • Fentanyl: DeSantis promised to prioritize stopping the flow of fentanyl and drug traffickers into the United States on Day One of his presidency. He committed to sending the military to the nation’s southern border and declaring a national emergency.
  • Electability: His first comment of the night criticized Trump as “missing in action,” a departure from his usual habit of avoiding mention of his top rival. DeSantis said he could restore Republican wins to the party, pointing to more successful midterm election results for the GOP in Florida than the rest of the country nationwide. When asked why voters should pick him instead of Trump, he said he can serve two terms.
  • Poll performance: 14.4 percent, down 0.2 points since last debate (13.8 on FiveThirtyEight)
  • In his words: “We didn’t just talk about universal school choice. We enacted universal school choice. We didn’t just talk about parents bill of rights. We enacted the parents bill of rights. We eliminated critical race theory and we now have American civics and the Constitution in our schools in a really big way. Just like President Reagan asked for in his farewell address back in 1989, Florida is showing how it’s done.”

Nikki Haley

Haley enjoyed a surge of support and favorable opinion poll results after the first debate. But at a recent event in Iowa, she said that she’s not celebrating just yet. “This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint,” Haley told KCCI-TV. While she still ranks a distant third in the national GOP primary rankings, a recent CNN poll for the general election showed Haley was the only Republican candidate likely to beat President Joe Biden. She is now second behind Trump in New Hampshire polls, but by a 30-point margin.

  • Border: Haley insisted that she could restore law and order in the nation, a phrase many candidates used. She promised to send 25,000 more Border Patrol agents to the border. Haley referenced recent crime sprees in Philadelphia to argue that unchecked border crossings affect nonborder areas, too. She said she would only invest money into addressing root causes after she fixes the immigration system.
  • Healthcare: “How can we be the best country in the world and have the most expensive healthcare in the world?” Haley asked. If elected, she promised to make hospitals issue more transparent bills and cut costs. She also said she would reform tort laws that intimidate doctors into ordering more tests than they need. She promised to “put patients in the driver seat” and increase competition for healthcare companies.
  • China: Later in the night, Haley connected immigration to national trade issues. She attacked Trump for focusing too much on trade with China, a major player in illegal fentanyl supply, while allowing the Communist Party to buy up American farmland. She promised to end all normal trade with China until the country stops shipping fentanyl to the United States. Then she said she would flow of the drug from Mexican distributors.
  • Poll performance: 5.8 percent, up 2.5 points since last debate (6.3 on FiveThirtyEight)
  • In her words: To Vivek Ramaswamy: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber for what you say.”

Vivek Ramaswamy

After the first debate, voters were unsure whether to applaud Ramaswamy’s aggression or be offended by his tone. When more surveys found Republicans associating “annoying” with Ramaswamy, his spokeswoman said, “I guess it’s annoying to win.” Ramaswamy has also encountered hit-or-miss approval of his new policy positions. On Wednesday, he said that as president he would cut 75 percent of the federal workforce and eliminate five “redundant” agencies, including the FBI and the Education Department. Ramaswamy has argued the president has statutory authority to do so, and that it’s time for a CEO-in-chief.

  • Border: Ramaswamy said that although he agrees that illegal immigration is a serious issue, he goes a step further than the other candidates. He repeated on the stage that he would end birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. This met with applause from the room. He cited the 14th Amendment to argue the president has authority to do so.
  • TikTok: Moderators scrutinized Ramaswamy’s new account on the video-sharing app, especially because he called it “digital fentanyl” just months ago. He argued that Democrats have a monopoly on reaching younger voters because they engage on social media platforms. Ramaswamy repeated that he does not think children under 16 should have access to “toxic” social media.
  • Trump: In a major departure from the rest of the stage, Ramaswamy did not criticize Trump for his absence or for his presidential record. He said he respected Trump’s legacy and would take an America First, MAGA (Make America Great Again) agenda further than Trump did.
  • Poll performance: 5.1 percent, down 2 points since last debate (6.3 on FiveThirtyEight).
  • In his words: “Just because Putin is a dictator doesn’t mean Ukraine is good. We need a peace plan to end this [war].”

Mike Pence

In the past month, the former vice president has called for the country to “reject the siren song of populism.” At a speech in New Hampshire early this month, Pence criticized former President Donald Trump for not being a true conservative and not promising to be one, either. But whatever energy he hoped to inject into his campaign hasn’t yet registered in the approval polls. On the second debate stage, Pence tried to evoke former President Ronald Reagan. The day before, four Reagan administration officials issued a letter in support of Pence. They called him “the candidate best equipped to uphold the Reagan legacy and lead our party and our nation forward.” On Wednesday night, Pence frequently drew on his political experience to try to set himself apart from the pack.

  • Gun violence: Pence promised to pass an expedited federal death penalty for mass shooters. He jabbed DeSantis for the life sentence received by the shooter in the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre. Pence said that his plan would “send a message” to possible shooters that a life sentence is not an option.
  • Obamacare: In 2016, Pence said he would repeal Obamacare, but moderators asked him Wednesday night if the policy is “here to stay.” Pence said “it’s one of the choices here,” and said his broader goal is to consolidate the government. He said he would do this by returning Obamacare funding to individual states.
  • Oil and energy: Pence said his work in the Trump administration helped to achieve energy independence and make the United States a net exporter. He promised to do this again if elected. He advocated an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes opening federal lands.
  • Poll performance: 4.2 percent, down 0.1 points since last debate (4.6 on FiveThirtyEight)
  • In his words: “Biden doesn’t belong on the picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line.”

Tim Scott

Donors have had two questions for the South Carolina senator: Are you always so nice, and where is your wife? On Wednesday, he answered the first question by criticizing fellow candidates on stage in a more aggressive style. So far in the campaign he has had a noncombative attitude, opting more for Bible recitations than for jabs at his opponents. In a recent memo to donors, Scott’s campaign manager insisted that the slower tempo of his campaign is a winning strategy while the other candidates duke it out. The memo was first obtained by Politico. While conservatives have responded favorably to Scott, some are hesitant because at age 57, he has never been married. He said he is dating a woman but does not want to disclose her identity yet.

  • Foreign policy: Despite no executive or international experience, Scott made the case that he has the legislative experience to lead the nation. He listed experience with the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Finance and Banking committees. Scott pointed to legislation he’s written to freeze assets connected to Mexican drug cartels as evidence of his foreign policy leadership.
  • Border: Scott pushed back on Ramaswamy’s idea to end birthright citizenship. He said the 14th Amendment was written with slavery in mind, not illegal immigration, and he was unsure the move could survive Supreme Court scrutiny. He agreed that border security is an important issue.
  • Budget: Moderators pitted Scott and Haley, both South Carolinians, against each other, asking, “Who is better suited to be the nation’s CEO?” Scott promised to pass a balanced budget amendment. He also said he could add 3.5 million jobs in the energy sector.
  • Poll performance: 2.8 percent, down 0.2 points since last debate (2.7 on FiveThirtyEight)
  • In his words: “Frankly, the city on the hill needs a brand new leader.”

Chris Christie

The former New Jersey governor’s campaign has included pointed attacks in political ads and comments about Trump. He referenced Taylor Swift lyrics after a photo circulated of him sitting with Dallas Cowboys owner and Republican donor Jerry Jones at a Cowboys’ game on Sunday. “After tonight, Trump will know we are never ever getting back together,” Christie posted on social media. He is also the only Republican candidate who has not yet set foot in Iowa. Instead, Christie has directed all his energy at New Hampshire. His campaign told Politico he is committed to staying in the race at least through the New Hampshire primary in early 2024.

  • Ukraine: Christie hit back against calls from Ramaswamy for a diplomatic solution to the Russian war in Ukraine. He pointed to visits between every modern president and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He instead said the United States needs to focus more on fighting alliances between Russia and China and other countries like North Korea.
  • Artificial intelligence: Christie welcomed the opportunities for invention with AI, saying Americans can’t be afraid of innovation. He said he would reduce government burdens on innovators and also offer retraining for people who might be forced to change jobs because of AI.
  • Abortion: Christie also argued that stronger pro-life leaders can advance a winning message in elections. He promoted his record as the only candidate who governed a majority-Democratic state. He said he vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood 14 times during his tenure. Christie said he is pro-life but also believes in states’ rights and thinks the issue should be decided at the state level. As president, he said he would lead a more unified approach to pro-life and post-birth care.
  • Poll performance: 2.7 percent, down 0.4 points since last debate (2.9 on FiveThirtyEight)
  • In his words: “If you’re pro life, you gotta be pro-life for the entire life. We start talking like that, [and] they’re gonna do what I did in the blue state, which was get reelected with 61 percent of the vote and win 70 percent of independents and 51 percent of Latinos because I told them the truth from my heart.”

Doug Burgum

The North Dakota governor just narrowly met the requirements to participate in the second debate, hitting 3 percent approval in a Saturday Trafalgar poll. Burgum previously reached 3 percent or more in two state polls but lacked a national number until the last minute. His campaign manager said the candidate would “speak with more gusto” at the second debate, eager to make his mark. And Burgum did just that. He interrupted the very first question on union strikes and frequently added his statements to questions he was not asked.

  • Auto strikes: Burgum said Biden’s plan to subsidize electric vehicles threatens American jobs and led to the United Auto Workers strike that’s underway. He said increasing electric vehicle production would also increase U.S. dependence on China for raw materials.
  • China: Burgum argued that Americans cannot ignore what he calls an economic war with China. He said energy policy can provide better competition with Chinese interests and protect farmers across the U.S.
  • Transgender issues: When asked about a federal law to protect public schoolchildren from being indoctrinated with transgender ideology, Burgum said states should address the issue, not the federal government. Then he changed the subject to talk about job creation in North Dakota.
  • Poll performance: 0.9 percent, up 0.4 points since last debate
  • In his words: “We’ve got the best farmers and ranchers in the world right here in America. If they have a level playing field, they can out-compete anyone in the world. But this is part of the larger issue that we’re talking about here, which is we’re in a cold war with China and the Biden administration won’t admit that.”

Who wasn’t there?

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson failed to qualify. Hours before the debate, his campaign released the “Ask Asa AI interface,” an AI-powered website stocked with Hutchinson’s speeches, interviews, and official opinions.

“The American people are going to have an opportunity to hear from some candidates this evening at the second RNC Presidential Primary Debate, but they won’t have the opportunity to hear from all of us,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “It is vitally important for every voter to be able to have an answer to their question and not simply rely on a moderator to hopefully ask it for them. This tool will allow voters to ask questions on their most important issues and get a response back from me.”

So I asked his chatbot why he wasn’t at the debate and whether he thinks the RNC should change the criteria. In a letter that started with “Dear Voter” and ended with “Sincerely, Asa,” the chat told me the RNC should consider revising its rules to be more inclusive. It also told me: “While I have always supported the party nominee, I do not believe in imposing a loyalty oath as a requirement for participating in the debates. Instead, a simple pledge to not run as a third-party candidate should suffice.”

This has been a sticking point for former President Donald Trump, who was also absent. In a recent interview with Megyn Kelly, the GOP front-runner said, “Why would I go? I’m leading the field.”

Trump’s ratings have continued to rise, now at 56.6 points, according to RealClearPolitics.

On Wednesday night, he visited a nonunion factory in Detroit to host a rally centered around the ongoing United Auto Workers strike. His visit comes a day after President Joe Biden donned a union jacket and stood with picketers for 12 minutes. UAW President Shawn Fain criticized the visit and said he did not plan on meeting the former president.


Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.

@CarolinaLumetta


This keeps me from having to slog through digital miles of other news sites. —Nick

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