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Seven Republican presidential candidates bickered about the economy, energy, China and each other’s past policy stances in the second 2024 primary debate Wednesday night, trying to find an opening to challenge the missing frontrunner, Donald Duck — er, former President Donald Trump.
“We’re not getting a mulligan on the 2024 election,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at one point, proposing that a successful GOP ticket would focus on fixing the economy, securing the border and focusing on the growing “threat from China.”
But Trump, 77, remained the elephant not in the room for the candidates, a fact driven home by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie staring down the barrel of a TV camera and dubbing him “Donald Duck” for skipping a second debate invitation.
“Donald, I know you’re watching, you can’t help yourself,” 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, and let me tell you what’s going to happen. If you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
DeSantis, Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum focused on their success as state leaders, while former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) noted their experience as leaders in Washington, DC.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the lone outsider, caught flak again from the other candidates, while still claiming to be Trump’s political heir.
“I think Trump was an excellent president. But the America First agenda does not belong to one man,” he said. “It does not belong to Donald Trump. It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to you, the people of this country.”
The case against ‘Bidenomics’ — and China
Candidates were unanimous in blaming Biden for United Auto Workers members striking over concerns that the shift to electric vehicles would devastate their workforce.
Pence kicked things off with a response to the president’s decision to stand in solidarity with those union workers, earning a muted response from the audience when he said Biden “belongs on the unemployment line” before regaining his footing.
“While the union bosses are talking about class warfare and talking about disparity in wages, I have to tell you, I really believe that what’s driving that is Bidenomics is failing,” he said.
The former Indiana governor went on to tout his record of bringing back manufacturing jobs to the Hoosier and echoed GOP calls to repeal the Biden administration’s push for green energy alternatives that benefit China.
“Joe Biden’s Green New Deal agenda is good for Beijing — and bad for Detroit,” Pence said.
“Why are those workers actually there? It’s because of all of the spending that he pushed through in the economy that’s raised inflation,” Haley chimed.
Ramaswamy ripped Biden for “disastrous economic policies” and urged striking auto workers in Detroit to instead “picket in front of the White House.”
“What we need is to deliver economic growth in this country,” he went on, before listing proposals he has championed as part of his campaign to “unlock American energy.”
“Drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear energy,” Ramaswamy said. “Put people back to work by no longer paying them more money to stay home.”
Burgum also saw an opening and butted in over the moderators to deliver a highly detailed response.
“The reason why people are striking in Detroit is because of Joe Biden’s interference with capital markets and with free markets,” he said, saying the president was “subsidizing electric vehicles” with taxpayers’ money and using it to buy batteries using rare earth minerals from China.
“They’re literally destroying the planet so that they can make a battery that’s in a car subsidized here,” Burgum added. “That’s why they’re striking, because they need two-thirds less workers to build an electric car.”
Still others viewed the question as an opening to address out-of-control spending under Biden’s predecessor.
DeSantis and Christie launched their first attacks against Trump in responding to questions about the economy under Biden — blaming both presidents for contributing to the national debt as a partial government shutdown looms.
“Where’s Joe Biden? He’s completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump,” DeSantis said, earning cheers from the audience.
“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 sets the stage for the inflation that we have.”
That last statement prompted Biden to get in a shot from the fundraising circuit in northern California, saying in a post on X that he “couldn’t agree more” with DeSantis.
Moderators struggled to control the candidates talking over each other and butting in at several points, with Fox News host Dana Perino once threatening to cut off Burgum’s microphone.
Disagreements over national security issues grew particularly heated during an exchange about the social media app TikTok, providing Haley with a chance to renew her attacks on Ramaswamy from the first debate.
“TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media accounts we could have,” Haley said. “Honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber.”
“They can get your contacts, they can get your financial information, they can get your emails and messages,” she told the audience before pivoting to tell Ramaswamy: “We can’t trust you.”
Haley also attacked Scott for failing during his time in the Senate to meaningfully reduce the national debt
“I appreciate Tim. We’ve known each other a long time, but he’s been [in the Senate] 12 years and he hasn’t done any of that,” she said in response to a lengthy answer from her fellow Palmetto State lawmaker that suggested corporate tax cuts to lower unemployment rates.
But Scott hit back moments later and said Haley “has never seen a federal dollar she doesn’t like,” drawing attention to a gas tax she passed as South Carolina governor and spending thousands of dollars on pricey curtains for her office at the UN.
The South Carolina senator also accused Ramaswamy of having accepted money from China — as well as from associates of first son Hunter Biden.
“The people that funded Hunter Biden millions of dollars was a partner of yours as well,” Scott said.
“That’s nonsense,” Ramaswamy responded, causing the two to erupt into a muddled back-and-forth that lasted for roughly two minutes.
“When every other CEO expanded into the Chinese market you know what I did with my first company? We opened a subsidiary in China,” Ramaswamy acknowledged. “But you know what I did that was different than every other company? We got the hell out of there.”
The elephant in the room
Perino closed the debate by noting the significant polling lead that Trump had over the rest of the Republican primary field — and then asked which one of them would they vote to be removed, causing outrage among the candidates.
“Are you serious?” Haley asked.
DeSantis refused to answer, along with all other candidates, calling the question “disrespectful.”
The Trump campaign tried to stay above the fray, with senior adviser Chris LaCivita dismissing the debate as “boring and inconsequential” and calling on the Republican National Committee to scrap future showdowns — including the next one set for Nov. 8 in Miami.
“President Trump has a 40- or 50-point lead in the primary election and a 10-point lead over Joe Biden in the general election, and it’s clear that President Trump alone can defeat Biden,” LaCivita said. “The RNC should immediately put an end to any further primary debates so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White House.”