On Wednesday, the seven Republicans who qualified for the second primary debate appeared onstage at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, where they discussed former President Donald Trump—who once again skipped the debate—the United Auto Workers strike, the border, education, and other key issues.
Trump still dominates polls, often earning more than 50% of the Republican vote. Since the first GOP primary debate in August, none of his rivals have gotten much closer to displacing him. The rest of the field has reshuffled, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, long viewed as Trump’s biggest rival, falling behind former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in some surveys.
These were some of the highlights of the second Republican presidential debate in the 2024 campaign.
United Auto Workers strike
The debate opened with questions about striking auto workers and whether they should be fired for causing disruptions at several plants and distribution centers.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said he doesn’t have much patience for union leaders but sympathizes with workers, urging them to picket in front of the White House to protest President Joe Biden’s economic policies. “I understand that hardship is not a choice,” Ramaswamy said, citing his parents’ economic struggles while he was growing up. “But victimhood is a choice and we choose to be victorious in the United States of America.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence chimed in, claiming “Bidenomics has failed” and that the President’s economic policies are “good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.” “Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line, he belongs on the unemployment line,” Pence said.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum steered the conversation to foreign affairs, a focus of his campaign, and blamed Biden for subsidizing electric vehicles with batteries sourced from China.
Haley responded to the question about striking workers by pitching her economic plan “to get more cash in the pockets of workers,” a plan that includes eliminating gas and diesel taxes and making small business taxes permanent.
As the other Republican candidates continue to fail to make a dent in Trump’s support among primary voters, some of them criticized the former President for skipping the debate and adding to the national debt.
“Donald Trump, he hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer,” Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, earning applause. “He put $7 trillion on the debt. He should be in this room to answer those questions for the people you talk about who are suffering.”
DeSantis echoed Christie’s attack on Trump and claimed that his spending set the stage for inflation: “Donald Trump is missing in action,” he said. “He should be on this stage tonight.”
Later, DeSantis invoked the former President in a question about abortion when he argued that “pro-lifers” were not to blame for Republicans’ 2022 defeats. “The former president, he’s missing in action tonight, he’s had a lot to say about that,” he said. “He should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Pence did not slam Trump as directly, but drew a contrast between himself and the man with whom he once shared a ticket. “My former running mate, Donald Trump, actually has a plan to start to consolidate more power in D.C., consolidate more power in the executive branch,” Pence said when asked if Obamacare is here to stay. “When I’m President of the United States, it’s my intention to make the federal government smaller by returning to the states those resources and programs that are rightfully theirs under the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution.”
But keeping with the central message of his campaign, it was Christie who was Trump’s most vocal critic. “Donald, I know you’re watching, you can’t help yourself, I know you’re watching,” Christie said. “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 the stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things. … No one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore, we’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
Amid a spike in unlawful border crossings, Haley proposed defunding sanctuary cities, adding 25,000 more border patrol and ICE agents, and implementing a catch-and-deport policy instead of a catch-and-release policy. She suggested no money should go toward addressing the root causes of migration until the border is secure.
Christie suggested the surge in migrants across the southern border be treated as a law-enforcement issue, vowing to sign an executive order to send the National Guard to partner with Customs and Border Patrol to stop the flow of fentanyl and accusing Trump of failing to complete the border wall he touted in his 2016 campaign.
Ramaswamy said that he agreed with his fellow Republicans, but is going even further by supporting the end of birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. He also advocated for militarizing the Southern border, while DeSantis supported using the military to go after Mexican drug cartels. “Those Mexican drug cartels are going to be treated like the foreign terrorist organizations they are,” DeSantis said.
Asked about Florida’s new history curriculum, which critics slammed for including a line about slaves developing skills they could use to their benefit, DeSantis said that framing was a “hoax perpetrated by Kamala Harris” and described his state’s education system as a template for the nation for eliminating critical race theory and enacting universal school choice. “Our country's education system is in decline because it's focused on indoctrination,” DeSantis said.
In response, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said that there is not a redeeming quality in slavery and that the controversial line should have been cut from the curriculum. He added that America is “not a racist country, never ever, not who we are.”
The candidates were also asked about parental rights for transgender youth. “Parents have the right to know,” Ramaswamy said, claiming that “transgenderism” is a “mental health disorder.” Pence went a step further, claiming that he would pass a federal ban on “transgender chemical or surgical surgery.” “We've got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology agenda,” he said.
For the second debate in a row, Ramaswamy got the most criticism from his rivals onstage. He tried to play nice at first, praising each of his opponents on the stage. But then Scott accused the entrepreneur of being in business with the Chinese Communist Party, leading to the night’s first heated exchange.
“Nonsense,” Ramaswamy said, before he, Scott, and DeSantis got caught up in cross talk.
“I’m glad Vivek got pulled out of his business deal in 2018 in China,” Pence said. “That must have been about the time he decided to start voting in presidential elections.”
“Everytime I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber from what you say,” Haley said to laughter after Ramaswamy answered a question about his recent decision to join TikTok. “We can’t trust you.”
Nonetheless, Ramaswamy remained less combative than he was in August. “I think we would be better served as a Republican Party if we're not sitting here hurling personal insults,” he said in response to Haley’s comment.
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