Republican debate unfolds with Trump absent

FOX Business Network and Univision hosted the debate last week. From left to right are former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. // Photo courtesy of Mark J. Terrill Associated Press

The leading GOP candidates met last Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for an impassioned and, at times, chaotic second Republican debate. Notably absent, however, was former President Donald Trump, who is currently ahead in the primary polls by over 40 points.

Only seven contenders took the debate stage compared to the first debate’s eight, with Asa Hutchinson announcing last week that his campaign failed to meet the Republican National Convention (RNC) polling requirements. 

Candidates sparred over a wide variety of issues, including unions, healthcare, energy, immigration and the economy, with a significant focus on the perceived failures of President Joe Biden’s administration and its heavily touted “Bidenomics” policy. 

“Bidenomics has failed,” said former Vice President Mike Pence.  “Wages are not keeping up with inflation. Auto workers and all American workers are feeling it. Families are struggling in this economy. … Joe Biden doesn’t belong on the picket line — he belongs in an unemployment line.” 

Trump was also not present at the first Republican debate and received some criticisms from his colleagues for it. During this debate, however, participants fired shots at the former president with a greater intensity. 

“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” said former Governor Chris Christie, addressing the camera directly. “And you’re not here tonight not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen, you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore, we’re gonna call you ‘Donald Duck.’”

Gov. Ron DeSantis levied a similar criticism, albeit in a more muted tone than Christie. 

“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight,” said DeSantis.

The debate quickly shifted into candidates attacking each other directly. Several arguments devolved into unintelligibility, with the Fox Business and Univision moderators straining to regain control of the room. 

Former Governor Nikki Haley found herself at the center of many of these arguments, including a memorable one with Vivek Ramaswamy regarding the safety of TikTok, in which she remarked, “Every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber.”

She also had a tense exchange with Tim Scott, in which he accused her of spending federal funds to buy curtains for her official United Nations residence, seemingly referencing a 2018 New York Times story that the outlet later retracted. “You’ve got bad information,” Haley said. 

Overall, there were fewer policy discussions than in the previous debate, with the moderators forgoing closing statements in favor of asking the candidates who they thought should drop out of the GOP race. “It’s now obvious that if you all stay in the race, former President Donald Trump wins the nomination,” said moderator Dana Perino. “So which one of you on stage tonight should be voted off the island?” 

Whiteboards were provided for the candidates to write their answer, but all refused. DeSantis called it “disrespectful to [his] fellow competitors.” Chris Christie took the opportunity to write “Donald Trump” on his whiteboard, but he declined to write the name of someone on the stage.

And with that, the debate ended. It looks as though the night will do little to upset the established order, as a 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll conducted in the days after the debate found Trump’s support only declining 0.1% with 63.8% of likely Republican primary voters considering voting for him. Each of the other candidates’ support remained steady as well, with Haley receiving a slight boost from the debate but still finding herself in third place behind Ron DeSantis. 

Haley’s campaign states that Trump sees them as more of a threat than before. Coincidentally, picture was released on Sunday of a birdcage and birdseed left outside of her door with a note that said “From: Trump campaign,” seemingly referencing Trump’s pejorative nickname for Haley, “Birdbrain.” The Trump campaign has not confirmed or denied responsibility. 

The state primary elections for the 2024 season will begin this January in Iowa, and only time will tell whether anyone will dislodge Trump’s lead. Tech students who are Georgia residents can register to vote before the
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