Republican rivals slam Trump for missing the second Republican debate

Republican rivals slam Trump for missing the second Republican debate
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Two Republican presidential hopefuls ripped former President Donald Trump for skipping Wednesday night's second 2024 primary debate, highlighting both his absence and his dominance with what appeared to be packaged one-liners.

"Donald Trump is missing in action," embattled Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, arguing that Trump owed it to voters to participate in debates.

"You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record," former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said as he looked into the camera and addressed Trump directly. “No one’s going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They're going to call you Donald Duck.”

Later, in response to a question about which candidate on the stage should be "voted off the island" to consolidate anti-Trump voters, Christie picked the one who wasn't there.

"He needs to be voted off the island, and he needs to be taken out of this process," Christie said of Trump.

After Republican candidates largely ignored Trump in their first debate in Milwaukee last month, the attacks stood out for bringing him into the discussion. But they also had the effect of reminding voters that Trump stands so safely ahead of the field that he didn't feel compelled to join in the debate at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, California.

Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett said the broadsides won't affect Trump.

"It's attacking the sun with a water gun," he said.

Trump, who spoke to blue-collar workers outside Detroit on Wednesday, enjoys a lead over second-place DeSantis that stood at more than 40 percentage points in an NBC News poll released Sunday. And though DeSantis and Christie elbowed Trump for failing to show up, the candidates took few major exceptions to his agenda at a time when most Republicans are in his corner.

DeSantis and Haley face a major moment

But DeSantis, who has watched his poll numbers plummet for months, again maneuvered to the political right of Trump on abortion, lamenting his criticism of Florida's ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and his determination that the issue harmed Republicans in the 2022 midterms.

DeSantis was one of two candidates who Republican strategists said had the most at stake in Wednesday's forum at the Reagan library. They were also watching to see whether former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley's comet would soar or crash.

For the second straight debate, she pummeled businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, taking aim at his thoughts on social media and his decision to do business with China — an issue that other candidates highlighted, too. She also took swings at DeSantis over Florida's restrictions on energy development and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., over failing to rein in Washington in his time there.

"Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber," Haley told Ramaswamy, adding an admonition: "We can’t trust you."

She also took the deepest policy cut at Trump, blasting him for failing to stop China from buying American property, producing fentanyl and "stealing ... intellectual property" from the U.S.

Those are the areas "where President Trump got it wrong" in the U.S. relationship with China as he focused on trade, she said.

Haley, who served six years as South Carolina’s governor, was the consensus winner of the first Republican debate last month, and her performance fueled a rise in primary polls in her home state, in Iowa, in New Hampshire and at the national level.

More noteworthy for many Republicans: An NBC News poll released Sunday showed Haley with a 5-point lead — 46% to 41% — over President Joe Biden in a hypothetical matchup. That puts her well ahead of Trump, who is tied with Biden at 46% in a head-to-head matchup, and DeSantis, who trails Biden by 1 point.

Aside from delivering a second tongue-lashing for Ramaswamy, Haley focused most of her remarks on substance, promising as she has in recent days to eliminate the federal tax on gas and diesel fuel and vowing to reverse Biden policies that she said have contributed to inflation.

Trump planned to do everything in his power to draw attention away from the stage and toward the idea that he is already engaged in a rematch of his 2020 fight with Biden. In the aftermath of the debate, the rest of the Republican field will also be competing for airtime with the autoworkers strike, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez's indictment on federal bribery charges and an impending government shutdown.

Those issues of national importance provided fodder for the moderators from Fox and Univision, along with the broader economy — an issue on which the GOP holds its largest edge ever over Democrats in the NBC News poll — the future of U.S. support for Ukraine, abortion, crime and immigration.

But one big question for the candidates in the pack behind Trump, and for GOP voters, was whether Haley could sustain her fire or prove to be a flash in the pan. Many Republican strategists predicted her rivals — particularly DeSantis, Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence — would affix a target to her back.

That didn't happen. But even the expectation put more pressure on Haley to defend herself capably and show she could go on offense at the same time.

"She has to look like she's the most electable both in the primary and the general, and you can't do that by talking about how you're electable," Brad Todd, a Republican strategist who isn't working for any of the campaigns, said before the debate. "You have to look the part. ... If she's able to take the fight to DeSantis, then a lot of people are going to say she can take the fight to Trump."

That points to the broader challenge that has bedeviled the Republican pack throughout the early stages of the primary fight: No one has taken control of the anti-Trump wing of the party, much less begun to carve into the majority of the GOP that supports him.

After months of portraying the race as a two-man fight, DeSantis and his team were faced with the reality that his trajectory has looked a lot more like the Dow Jones on Black Monday in 1987 than a skybound SpaceX rocket.

"For Ron tonight, he's got to hit it out of the park," Sean Van Anglen, a New Hampshire Republican activist who backs DeSantis, said before the debate began. "This has to be his night, and I don't think he can wait around anymore. I think the general consensus amongst confidants of his campaign [hangs] on tonight."

Afterward, Van Anglen said in text messages that DeSantis "did well" and had "more fire in the system tonight." But he also said Haley "got fired up."

A DeSantis bundler said ahead of the debate that donors had all but lost faith in him.

“It’s make or break for the governor. He’s listing. He’s been floundering at best since the last debate,” the bundler said. “If he struggles, if he has another average or bad performance, I think the narrative becomes hard-wired that he’s dead and it’s irrecoverable.”

Donors have been watching closely as Haley is close to overtaking DeSantis in the polls and as DeSantis has failed to break through.

“I’m not seeing anybody say, ‘We must have Ron DeSantis,’” the bundler said. “He hasn’t had a legitimate good month since November.”

The state of the field

Trump led with 59% in the NBC News poll, with DeSantis at 16% — an 8-point gain for Trump and a 6-point decline for DeSantis since a June survey. But DeSantis had begun to swoon well before that. Haley inched forward from 4% to 7%, while Pence fell from 7% to 4%. Christie, Scott and Ramaswamy all remained at 5% or below, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum remained at 0%.

Christie has put all of his emphasis on campaigning in New Hampshire, a state DeSantis hasn't visited in a month, but he is attempting the tricky feat of winning without leaving a footprint in Iowa. Ramaswamy has shown himself to be adept at collecting headlines, but he isn't polling in the top three in any of the four early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Some Scott supporters were disappointed that his performance in the first debate tracked the general approach of his campaign: say nothing unkind about a fellow Republican. That has given him better favorability ratings than the rest of the field, but it has prevented him from gaining traction among an electorate that GOP strategists say is hungry for a fighter. He was much more aggressive Wednesday night, mixing it up with Haley repeatedly toward the end of the night.

Scott has enough cash, between his campaign account and a supportive super PAC, to keep running indefinitely. But the other candidates may find it's hard to raise money if they don't start breaking away from the pack and toward Trump. That gave Haley incentive to go on the attack and an opportunity to start putting away rivals.

"Debates are really only about two things. They're about showing off your brain and proving you have guts," Todd said. "She's going to pass the first one every time. So then, the burden on her is to pick a fight and win a fight."

It was clear, as Ramaswamy called for civility following her shots at him, that she had done that. But it remained to be seen whether scrapping with several foes would serve her well with voters.

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