As the race for the 2024 presidential election continues, GOP candidates took the debate stage for a second time on Wednesday, Sept. 27 to fight for the Republican nomination.
In Simi Valley, California, seven qualifying Republican candidates were present, with the notable absence of former president Donald Trump.
Topics discussed ranged from the economy, child care, immigration and energy policies.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues to take center stage as he leads the pack in poll numbers, yet is still trailing frontrunner Trump by 33 points.
“Governor DeSantis of Florida might be the primary alternative to Trump, but he has faded as his campaign season has moved forward,” said professor of political science Gregory Koger. “At this point, he is just one of three to five candidates who is in the running as an alternative.”
DeSantis used his first speaking opportunity to criticize the former president, stating that Trump “set the stage” for inflation with his national debt contribution and that he’s “missing in action” along with President Joe Biden.
Direct criticism of Trump marks a turning point in DeSantis’ loyalty to the frontrunner, and could impact his ability to both persuade Trump’s voter base and remain open as a running mate.
DeSantis wasn’t the only candidate throwing rocks at his opponents that night.
Former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley took a commanding position toward the other GOP candidates. She was the first to attack DeSantis, criticizing his energy policies and his opposition to drilling and fracking in Florida. DeSantis denied those claims.
Her most heated exchanges were directed towards fellow candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott (R-SC).
She targeted entrepreneur Ramaswamy for his backtracking stances on China, specifically calling out his presence on TikTok, an app he once referred to as “digital fentanyl.”
Haley also took a jab at Ramaswamy for his persona on stage.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a bit dumber,” Haley said.
Haley and her fellow South Carolina native Tim Scott, who currently serves on the US Senate for the state, went neck and neck arguing about levels of experience.
Both cited the other’s inadequate work while in their respective positions, with the argument taking a turn to who was friendlier with the Obama administration.
Wednesday’s debate was the lowest viewed GOP debate since 2015. The second Republican primary debate of that cycle garnered 23 million views, while the most recent saw only 9.3 million.
“It does suggest a low level of interest in this debate and of voters to choose amongst this set of candidates,” Koger said. “One subtle difference this cycle is that the Republican party has been a lot more conscious about restricting access to these debates.”
Former vice president Mike Pence arguably had the most talked about moment of the night, despite having little speaking time.
In response to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s jab at President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden for being a part of the teacher’s union, Pence added, “My wife isn’t a member of the teachers union, but I got to admit, I have been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years.”
Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota, visibly fought for airtime at the debate, but when given the opportunity he focused on the economy and America-first policies.
The strongest critic of Donald Trump on stage was Christie, who frequently lumped Trump’s failed leadership with President Biden’s. It was when Christie first called out the former president that crosstalk and interruptions began during the debate.
His most highlighted moment was when he used Trump’s own tactic to call Trump “Donald Duck” for consistently ducking the Republican debates.
All candidates refused to answer a “Survivor” themed question asked by moderator Dana Perino, who prompted the candidates to “vote off the island” who they think should drop out of the race.
Both Democrats and Republicans in recent years have sought to make it so only serious candidates are using the debate stage for its purpose, limiting its platform as a publicity stunt.
“A lot of presidential nominees are, for both parties for the last 50 years, have been people who ran once, didn’t quite get the nomination, and then ran again, having built up name recognition and organizational contacts.” Koger said.
The third debate is set to be held on Nov. 7 in Miami, but the Trump campaign is publicly calling on the Republican National Convention to cancel, stating that there’s no need for a third debate as Trump continues to be the center of attention.
“I look forward to Miami if it actually happens,” Koger said. “It’s quite possible we’ll see some of these candidates again in 2028.”