As Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one was noticeably absent: Donald Trump.
The former president, who maintains massive leads in national polls, chose to skip the debate and instead travel to Detroit, where United Auto Workers strikes are in their second week.
While most of Trump’s challengers were hesitant to criticize him in the first debate, his absence became a theme of Wednesday’s debate. Candidates transitioned from an early discussion of the U.S. economy into a critique of Trump, whose administration added over $7 trillion dollars to the national debt during its four years.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was the most willing of candidates at the first debate to critique Trump, led the charge. “(Trump) put us habitually in debt,” he said. “He should be in this room to answer those questions to the people.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed. After taking a shot at President Joe Biden, who he says is “missing in action” during the country’s economic crisis, he put Trump in the crosshairs.
“You know who else is missing in action?” DeSantis said. “Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight.”
At the first debate, held last month in Milwaukee, eight candidates participated. Trump skipped the debate and aired an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Seven candidates participated in Wednesday’s debate: DeSantis, Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Moderators included Univision’s Ilia Calderón, Fox News’ Dana Perino and Fox Business’ Stuart Varney.
Candidates chime in on the economy, government shutdown
The moderators opened the debate by citing a recent Pew Research survey, showing that most Americans consider politics to be “exhausting.” They then pointed to inflation and the ongoing UAW strikes in Detroit — where Biden visited Tuesday and Trump on Wednesday. They mentioned Biden’s visit but not Trump’s.
Ramaswamy, a son of Indian immigrants, pointed to his parents’ struggles in working multiple jobs. “I don’t have a lot of patience for the union bosses,” he said. “I do have sympathy for the workers.”
“Hardship is not a choice. But victimhood is a choice,” he continued.
Haley said cutting taxes — like eliminating the gas and diesel tax — is the best path to helping Americans. The average U.S. family, she said, is paying $7,000 more annually in household costs.
She blamed Congress for barreling toward a government shutdown, calling on them to pass a balanced budget. “If they don’t keep the government open, they should not get paid,” she said.
Christie, too, blasted Congress. “Voters should blame everyone in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “They get sent down there to do their job and they’ve been failing at doing their job for a very long time.”
Pence said he is running, in part, to stabilize the economy. “Joe Biden doesn’t belong on the picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line,” he said.
On immigration, a ‘country of laws’
Scott pulled the conversation from the economy to immigration, saying Biden “should not be on the picket line,” but “on the southern border.”
Christie was asked why he supported a path to citizenship in 2010 while governor of New Jersey, but supported mass deportations in 2016 while running for president. He said the country’s immigration situation is different now, calling for an “enforcement-first” approach that would send the National Guard to the border
“We want you here in this country to fill the 6 million vacant jobs we have, but only if you come here to follow the law, and only if you come here legally,” Christie said.
He knocked Trump for pledging he would build a border wall, and not finishing it during his administration.
Haley called for being a “country of laws,” saying we must secure both “the southern border” and “the northern border.”
Calderón asked Ramaswamy about his policy proposal to end birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, an argument that many legal scholars have deemed unconstitutional. Ramaswamy said if a foreign diplomat’s child, born in the U.S., is not offered citizenship, neither should the child of an undocumented immigrant.
“Now, the left will howl about the Constitution and the 14th Amendment,” he said. “The difference between me and them is I’ve read the 14th Amendment.”
Scott, the lone Black candidate on stage, opposed Ramaswamy’s proposal, saying he’d leave it to the Supreme Court to determine its legitimacy. But he noted that the 14th Amendment was written in response to slavery, not illegal immigration.
“So the challenge that we face is … whether or not people that come here are under the jurisdiction of our laws,” Scott said. “And frankly, if you come here illegally, you are not.”
On education, candidates denounce ‘indoctrination’
Several candidates called for universal school choice and dissolving the U.S. Department of Education. Haley called for moving all federal programs to the state level, letting states “decide what education looks like in their states.”
“We’ve got to quit spending time on this ‘DEI’ and ‘CRT,’ and instead focus on financial literacy, digital literacy and on making sure that our kids know what they need to do to have the jobs of the next generation,” Haley said.
A tense moment came when Calderón asked DeSantis about new public school standards in his state, in which social studies curriculum teaches that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” DeSantis has defended the curriculum, saying enslaved people “developed skills in spite of slavery, not because of slavery.”
DeSantis called the controversy a “hoax,” then called for universal school choice and the end of “indoctrination.”
Scott fired back at DeSantis. “There is not a redeeming quality in slavery,” he said.
Ramaswamy knocked on China, Ukraine
At the first debate, with the front-runner absent, Ramaswamy faced the brunt of on-stage attacks from his fellow candidates, especially for his views regarding Ukraine. Much was the same Wednesday, with Haley, Scott and Christie getting into spats with the 38-year-old entrepreneur over Ukraine, TikTok and China.
Ramaswamy has called for the U.S. to stop supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia, claiming that aid for Ukraine is “driving Russia further into China’s arms.”
“China’s the real enemy,” Ramaswamy said.
Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, slammed Ramaswamy on this as she did in the first debate.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Haley said, claiming that his opposition to Ukraine is effectual support for China. “A win for Russia is a win for China,” she said.
Ramaswamy has faced criticism in recent days for doing business with a CCP-backed firm.
Scott sparred with Ramaswamy on Ukraine, too. Scott — a sitting U.S. senator — has voted to approve all of the U.S. military aid, to date, to Ukraine, and he emphasized that 90% was sent as a loan.
Candidates arrived to the Reagan Library around midday Wednesday. Several of them went to pay their respects at the Memorial Site, just west of the library where former President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan are buried.
In the hours leading up to the debate, groups of demonstrators gathered at the head of Presidential Drive, the road leading to the Reagan Library. On one corner, people wore MAGA hats and waved “Trump 2024” flags; on another corner, a giant Ukrainian flag was held by people wearing blue and yellow; and across the street, a group of pro-immigrant demonstrators chanted “Somos humanos” (“We are humans”).
A plane circled the complex, towing a banner that read, “GOP 2024: A Race For The Extreme MAGA Vote.”