Seven GOP presidential rivals tangled Wednesday night on a Simi Valley, Calif., stage, arguing over who is the best to take on President Biden next fall.
It was a rambunctious night filled with personal attacks by candidates battling for survival, culminating in a clash over curtains between Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and his state’s former Gov. Nikki Haley.
None of the contenders are within spitting distance in polls of former President Trump, who for a second time didn’t bother showing up for the debate.
That added to the sense of desperation for some of the would-be contenders, who know the time for catching up to Trump is running out.
Here are the winners and losers.
Former President Trump
Trump without a doubt felt like the biggest winner Wednesday night.
He wasn’t on stage and instead appeared at an event in Michigan that signaled he’s already moving his focus to a November 2024 general election against Biden.
In national and state polls, Trump is far ahead of his nearest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
He leads DeSantis by 42 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average nationally and by 33 points in Iowa. In New Hampshire, Trump holds a 31-point lead over Haley in the polling average.
On Wednesday, none of the seven people on stage truly stood out. The night was filled with moments where it was difficult to hear what any of the candidates were saying given all of the cross-talk.
Much of it also felt like an echo of the first debate.
“It was a little flat today,” former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Fox Business immediately after the debate concluded. Her conclusion was that it was unlikely to change the polls.
“Polls don’t elect presidents. Voters elect presidents,” DeSantis told moderator Dana Perino when asked about Trump’s dominant lead.
That is true. But it’s difficult to believe the results of the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary will be much different based on Wednesday’s performances.
Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, emerged as the biggest winner who was actually on the debate stage on Wednesday night.
As with the first debate in Milwaukee, the former South Carolina governor sought to present herself as the adult in the room — albeit one who wouldn’t back down from a fight.
Haley generated one of the most talked-about moments in Wisconsin when she got into a heated back-and-forth with Vivek Ramaswamy. That animosity carried over into the Simi Valley event, with Haley producing another memorable exchange when she bluntly told the biotech entrepreneur, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
She went on offense throughout the night, mostly successfully. She directly took on DeSantis, generally seen as Trump’s top rival, accusing him of banning fracking — a hot-button issue in key swing states, like Pennsylvania.
And she stood her ground when Scott, who also hails from the Palmetto State, pressed her on her support for hiking the gas tax as South Carolina governor and for her spending while at the UN.
“Bring it, Tim,” Haley said to him as he opened his line of attack.
It was one of several memorable moments Haley was responsible for during the debate. While it remains to be seen if it’ll help her in the polls, there’s no question the former South Carolina governor had a solid night.
DeSantis came into Wednesday night’s event with perhaps the most to prove. After a muted showing in the first debate, observers said the governor needed a knockout performance in Simi Valley.
DeSantis generally handled himself well during the two-hour event, drawing applause on occasion and pushing back against Haley’s aggressive attack over his fracking record. He also stepped up his broadsides on Trump, repeatedly criticizing the president for being a no-show at the debate.
Yet he failed to generate any buzzy moments and often faded into the background while some of his rivals, like Haley and Scott, managed to seize the spotlight.
Ultimately, while DeSantis had a decent night, it might not be enough for his campaign to right the ship ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) showed no signs of backing down from the anti-Trump persona he has cultivated in the primary, repeatedly attacking the former president and urging the party to move on.
While it seems unlikely such remarks will endear him to the GOP primary electorate, Christie did at least manage to go viral with one of the night’s most memorable lines, in which he addressed Trump directly through the camera.
“I want to look at the camera right now and tell you, Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself. I know you’re watching, okay? And 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 this stage and defending your record,” Christie said.
“You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen, you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore, we’re gonna call you Donald Duck,” Christie said.
Scott has staked his candidacy on the idea that voters want a politician who embraces hope and optimism as opposed to fear and vitriol. So it was notable that Scott used Wednesday’s event to attack some of his opponents.
The pivot suggests Scott is looking to do away with his “nice guy” image as he fails to catch fire in the polls. A recent CNN/University of New Hampshire poll found him trailing at sixth place with 6 percent support, behind Trump, DeSantis and others.
The South Carolina senator came out swinging, knocking Ramaswamy over his alleged ties to China and pressing Haley — a fellow Palmetto State Republican — over her support for raising the gas tax as governor and for her spending while working as Trump’s U.N. ambassador.
Yet Scott failed to land any knockout blows. Haley easily batted away his attacks, even taunting him at one point. And Scott tended to get drowned out by his other rivals, even as he stepped up his offensive.
Ultimately, his performance on Wednesday night might be an encouraging sign for supporters who have been hoping for a course correction from the senator, but it seems unlikely to be any kind of game-changer.
While Ramaswamy had a strong first debate performance last month, the tech entrepreneur-turned-politician struggled to handle the attacks his opponents threw at him Wednesday evening.
Many of the candidates came ready to put Ramaswamy on defense, particularly over his past business ties to China. Scott kicked off the debate by saying Ramaswamy was “just in business with the Chinese Communist Party,” while former Vice President Mike Pence said he was glad Ramaswamy pulled out of a business deal with China in 2018.
However, one of the most striking attacks against Ramaswamy came from Haley over his decision to join the social media platform TikTok. Haley responded to Ramaswamy’s explanation for joining the platform by quipping, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
The China-related attacks could stand to make him more vulnerable ‘due to the issue’s salience with Republican primary voters.
Like Ramaswamy, Pence had a good night at the first debate. However, Pence appeared to lose his footing on Wednesday’s debate stage. At one point during the forum, Pence was asked whether ObamaCare was here to stay, and he instead called for passing a federal law expediting the death penalty.
The response prompted moderator Dana Perino to reiterate her original question.
“I appreciate that, so does that mean ObamaCare is here to stay?” Perino asked.
The former vice president also found himself in an awkward spot when he attempted to build on an attack Christie made against first lady Jill Biden.
Christie had swiped at the first lady, saying the president was sleeping with a member of the teacher’s unions. Pence attempted to take the line one step further, quipping, “My wife isn’t a member of the teachers union, but I’ve got to admit I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was in desperate need of a knockout performance on Wednesday, and while the governor tried to steal the spotlight throughout the debate, he was unable to land a punch.
Throughout the debate, Burgum tried to interject, often to tout his record as governor. But he struggled to stand out in the fray and got drowned out during the crossfire. On top of that, Burgum also sometimes came off as a nuisance to the moderators. At one point, Perino even threatened to cut his mic when he was trying to interject.
“I am the only person on the stage that has a career in technology,” Burgum said, speaking about artificial intelligence.
“Sir, we’ll have to cut your mic, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t,” Perino said.
Burgum’s lack of a breakout moment deprives his campaign of the boost it needs to compete with Trump and the second-tier candidates and makes his viability for the nomination even less likely.