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Updated Sep 28, 2023, 1:41pm EDT
politics

Here’s what stood out at the Reagan Library GOP debate

REUTERS/Mike Blake
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The News

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Wednesday’s debate, hosted by Fox Business and Univision, was a lot like the prior one. The candidates argued over Ukraine, tossed some snowballs at Donald Trump, and hurled grenades at Vivek Ramaswamy. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. got a more high-profile introduction to the Republican electorate, Nikki Haley continued to capitalize on her strong first debate, and Ron DeSantis turned in another solid, if unspectacular, performance. None of it looked likely to change the fundamental state of the race much, which is good news for Trump.

Here are some of the big takeaways.

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The Highlights

Trump emerged unscathed. The candidates and moderators didn’t focus on Trump much in the first debate — and he jumped to his biggest lead yet in polls soon after. The same situation played out on Wednesday, with some half-hearted knocks at him for skipping the event, and a passing swipe here or there on spending or China policy, but no real sustained attack. Perhaps the most memorable line was Chris Christie calling him “Donald Duck” for avoiding the debate. DeSantis called him “missing in action” and got in a shot at the very end of the debate for saying Florida’s six-week ban on abortion was a “terrible thing.”

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Meanwhile, Trump made perhaps the biggest debate-related news of the evening at his event in Michigan, where he implied he won’t be picking any of his opponents as his running mate. If the campaign keeps going the way it’s going, stray hints about the veepstakes in September are going to matter a lot more than anything happening onstage at the debates.

Vivek rebooted. In Milwaukee, Ramaswamy’s rivals could barely contain their contempt for him. In this debate, they didn’t even try to — Nikki Haley’s post-debate bump showed that there was no downside in attacking the youngest, wealthiest, and least experienced candidate. Early in the night, Ramaswamy even showed some rare contrition for abandoning his anti-TikTok stance after, of all things, a meeting with influencer/boxer Jake Paul. He launched into a monologue about humility that seemed laser-targeted at some of the negative reactions to his first debate.

“Let me level with all of you,” Ramaswamy said. “I’m the new guy here, and so I know I have to earn your trust. What do you see? You see a young man who’s in a bit of a hurry, maybe a little ambitious, bit of a know-it-all. I’m here to tell you, no, I don’t know it all. I will listen.”

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Haley, almost immediately after this heartfelt display, dropped the harshest attack of the entire evening: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she said.

Ramaswamy spent much less time mocking his opponents this go-around, which managed to irritate them anyway — Scott pointed out that he’d called them “good people” only one month after he’d said they were “bought and paid for” in the last debate. He laid out where he’d go further than other candidates — ending birthright citizenship, keeping minors off social media — but repeatedly wound up in fights with candidates who were sick of listening to him.

“I was interrupted by a lot of people here and I want to be respectful,” Ramaswamy said, explaining how he’d abandoned doing business in China. “Yeah, you were real respectful in the last debate,” said Scott.

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Ron DeSantis survived. DeSantis avoided the disaster debate scenario that some supporters worried might kill his campaign — but, like the first debate, he struggled to stand out. Notably, he made more of an effort to go after Trump this time around, using his very first question to accuse the Republican frontrunner of overspending as president and being MIA as a candidate: “Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight.” (Afterwards, his campaign team doubled down on the attack, with spokesman Andrew Romeo telling reporters it’s a “mistake” for Trump to avoid the debates).

DeSantis also attacked Trump on abortion. “I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats,” he said, referring to the former president’s assessment. DeSantis added that Republicans should “stand for what we believe in.” He appeared to clarify his support for a 15-week federal abortion ban, something he had avoided doing to this point. The 15-week line came during a back-and-forth with Tim Scott and prompted praise from SBA Pro-Life America, a major anti-abortion group.

Still, it was relatively scattershot, and all on topics that have so far failed to dent Trump’s appeal with conservative voters. If you didn’t know the polling history, there would be little reason to assume DeSantis was his leading rival from watching his performance.

“The trajectory of the race hasn’t changed,” senior Trump advisor Chris LaCivita told Semafor.

Tim Scott entered the arena. The South Carolina senator barely made an impression in last month’s debate, taking an 11th Commandment, above-the-fray approach that ended up benefitting Nikki Haley. That changed tonight, with Scott jumping into every crosstalk, and picking a fight with Ramaswamy: “You were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Scott was citing a conservative columnist who’d been critical of Ramaswamy, and got some help from the Fox Business moderators, too. They started the night with him — a candidate polling in the mid single digits — and let him explain his criticism of the UAW strike without a follow-up. Later, they resurrected the two-month old controversy over how Florida’s new education standards discuss slavery, irritating DeSantis while teeing up an Aaron Sorkin-esque moment for Scott: “I have been discriminated against, but America is not a racist country. Never, ever! It’s not who we are!”

Still, some of Scott’s strongest material was canned. He picked two fights with Haley — one over her gas tax raises as governor, one over expensive curtains placed in the U.N. ambassador’s New York residence — but Haley was ready, explaining the horse-trading that led to South Carolina’s tax deal and pointing out, correctly, that the curtains were purchased before she got the job.

“Talk about someone who has never seen a federal dollar she doesn’t like,” Scott said. Haley had a snappy response: “Bring it, Tim.”

Who’s sleeping with who? The American people got a whole lot of imagery involving ex-vice presidents and their bedroom partners, whether they asked for it or not. “When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you could take the stranglehold away from the teachers union,” Christie said, picking a, uh, unconventional way to make the point that the First Lady has a doctorate in education. Mike Pence responded later that “my wife is not a member of the teachers union, but I got to admit, I have been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years.”

“Didn’t want to know who Pence was sleeping with,” one advisor on a rival campaign texted mid-debate.

None of these candidates should expect a UAW endorsement. Trump’s decision to skip the debate in favor of a visit to Michigan loomed over the debate. The optics weren’t ideal — he rallied at a non-union business, with workers who weren’t participating in the UAW’s limited strike. But when asked about the strike, Trump’s rivals mostly couldn’t wait to pivot to other topics.

“Joe Biden should not be on the picket line: He should be on the southern border, working to close our southern border,” said Scott, who criticized Biden for spending billions on union pensions.

“If I was giving advice to those workers, I would say go picket in front of the White House,” said Ramaswamy.

“Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line,” said Pence.

Haley suggested that the workers were picketing because of government spending and inflation, which would be news to UAW president Shawn Fain.

“This strike is at Joe Biden’s feet,” said Doug Burgum, putting the GOP position succinctly — that the government would kill the car industry by promoting electric vehicles.

The moderators went wonk. The debate’s moderators entered with a clear mission to ask candidates about bread-and-butter policy issues that have gotten less attention in the GOP debate so far. They were asked what they would do about striking auto workers, the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, uninsured Americans, and rising college tuition. With Univision as a co-host, they also tried to pin them down on specifics like what to do about DREAMers.

The results were mixed — candidates often pivoted to more comfortable topics, like inflation and immigration. But they produced some substantive answers, too: Scott said he would protect Head Start funding and cut taxes to lower child care costs; DeSantis talked about his plan to penalize universities whose students consistently struggle; Christie took a question on how to stop job losses from AI advances and urged Americans to embrace the new technology and the productivity gains it could produce even as he called for retraining affected workers.

Still, there’s a reason these topics haven’t taken off on the trail. The party has been largely focused on other issues and it seemed unlikely the wonkier exchanges will do much to change the tenor of the race.

Things were slightly more in control. Some Republican campaigns were furious at Fox Business for bending the debate rules, seemingly in response to tensions between the moderators and candidates in the prior debate. The network’s rules specified that the microphones would be “hot at all times.” But campaigns were frustrated when they believed during the debate that Fox seemed to be cutting mics or turning down the volume of mics. “I’ve seen school assemblies that were better produced than this mess,” one senior campaign staffer texted Semafor on Wednesday. But a informed Fox insider told Semafor that the volume of mics was not adjusted, and some candidates were simply speaking too far away from the mics at certain points to be heard.

Gavin Newsom made an impression. One of the most interesting elements of Wednesday night came from someone watching the debate offstage nearby. California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appearance at the debate on behalf of the Biden campaign injected an element of uncertainty into the event, bailing out reporters losing interest in a stagnant presidential race with an absentee frontrunner.

Clearly, the political media was interested: Newsom sat down for what one aide said was nearly a dozen interviews in the leadup to Wednesday’s contest, and was the star attraction in the spin room before the debate. He mocked the Republican field, calling them the junior varsity candidates, defended Biden, and taunted Ron DeSantis, saying he only agreed to an upcoming debate with the California governor because DeSantis is flailing in the polls. And he sparred with Sean Hannity, telling his Fox News audience to Google record oil production under Biden.

Max Tani contributed to this story.

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