SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Donald Trump ‘s rivals laid into him repeatedly during the second presidential debate on Wednesday, ripping the former president for skipping the event as they sought to dent his commanding early lead in the Republican primary.
“He should be on this stage tonight,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is attempting to establish himself as the leading Trump alternative despite recent struggles to break out from the rest of the back. “He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt. That set the stage for the inflation we have now.”
Seven GOP candidates squared off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California for an event hosted by Fox Business Network. Trump instead went to Michigan, delivering a prime-time speech that continued through the start of the debate — attempting to capitalize on the Auto Workers Union strike and trying to appeal to rank-and-file union members in a key state that could help decide the general election.
The debate came at a critical moment in the GOP campaign, with less than four months before the Iowa caucuses formally launch the presidential nomination process. Trump has continued to dominate the field, even as he faces a range of vulnerabilities, including four criminal indictments that raise the prospect of decades in prison.
Several of those onstage blistered Trump for not showing up, a departure from the first debate, which Trump also skipped. DeSantis said just a few minutes in that President Joe Biden was “completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has built his campaign around criticizing Trump, said the former president “hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer.”
Trump, meanwhile, made only a passing mention of the debate during his lengthy speech, drawing boos when he said, “We’re competing with the job candidates” and poking fun at them for not drawing crowds as large as his. The former president’s competitors are running out of time to cut into his lead, increasing the sense of urgency among some to take him on more directly before an audience of millions.
That may be a tall order. Even hours before the event began in Simi Valley, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the first group of supporters for any campaign to arrive waved Trump flags and put up a banner reading “Trump, our last hope for America and the world.”
That underscored the former president’s continued influence at a debate he’s not attending. Trump also didn’t attend the first debate last month in Milwaukee, where the participants criticized one another while mostly avoiding attacks on Trump. That wasn’t the case this time.
“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” Christie said. “You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen. You keep doing that, no one here’s going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence dismissively called Trump “my former running mate.”
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, drew larger crowds and new interest after her first debate performance. As she did in Milwaukee, she tried to pick fights with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy over his use of TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app.
“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Haley said.
After going on the offensive during the first debate, Ramaswamy tried to strike a softer stance Wednesday. He decried “personal insults” among fellow Republicans, while also talking about his upbringing as the candidates discussed the autoworkers strike.
“My father stared down layoffs at GE under Jack Welch’s tenure at the GE plant in Evendale, Ohio,” Ramaswamy said. “My mom had to work overtime in nursing homes in southwest Ohio to make ends meet and pay off our home loan. So I understand that hardship is not a choice. But victimhood is a choice.”
That also was a departure from the first debate, when Ramaswamy called out many of his opponents, adopting a confrontational tone that at times recalled Trump’s. In addition to Haley, he was sharply criticized by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, touching off an exchange where the two talked over each other and both became difficult to understand.
DeSantis also snipped at Ramaswamy and so did Pence, suggesting that he’d failed to vote in many past elections. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum steered clear of Ramaswamy, but repeatedly jumped in to answer questions he wasn’t asked to get himself more screen time in the debate’s early going. He repeatedly shouted for attention from the left end of the stage, leading a moderator to threaten to cut his microphone.
Capturing the night’s awkward undercard feeling, two candidates made references to sex in talking about teachers unions. “When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you can take the stranglehold away from the teachers union,” Christie said at one point, referencing first lady Jill Biden’s teaching career and longtime membership in the National Education Association.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson failed to qualify after making the first debate. He too headed to suburban Detroit, saying, “Donald Trump is here in Detroit tonight because he wants to avoid a debate.”
Wednesday’s site was symbolic given that Reagan has long been a Republican icon whose words and key moments still shape GOP politics today. But in addition to fighting with the library’s leaders, Trump has reshaped the party and pushed it away from Reagan.
Biden was just up the coast in Northern California for fundraisers. His reelection campaign has mounted multiple days of counterprogramming in California, seeking to label Trump and followers of his Make America Great Again movement as too extreme. The state’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is a vocal public face of Biden’s reelection campaign and called the debate little more than entertainment for political junkies, given Trump’s sizable primary lead.
“This is a sideshow, by any objective measure,” Newsom told The Associated Press. “You’ve got a guy who’s the de facto incumbent.”
The debate, Newsom added, is “JV, XFL stuff.”
Weissert reported from Washington.