Second Republican debate: Candidates clash over Trump, immigration and China

Presidential hopefuls look for a breakout moment but former president remains frontrunner

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former vice president Mike Pence. EPA
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Seven Republican candidates clashed over key issues that will likely define next year's US presidential election, but none seemed able to score a breakout moment to challenge Donald Trump's status as front-runner.

The former president was conspicuous in his absence during the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday night. Just as he did in the first debate last month, he opted to skip the event, leaving his distantly trailing opponents to squabble among themselves during a scrappy two-hour discussion.

The election is not until November 2024, but less than four months remain until the Iowa caucuses officially launch the Republican nomination process, so time is running out for candidates to pitch their visions of America to conservative voters.

At several points during the debate chaos ensued as candidates talked over each other and traded barbs. For several minutes early on, Senator Tim Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were all speaking at the same time while the debate's three moderators tried ineffectually to rein them in.

Still, criticism of Mr Trump was more apparent than it was in the first debate, with several candidates calling him out for his failure to attend.

“You're afraid of being on this stage and defending your record,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said.

“You keep doing that, nobody up here's going to keep calling you Donald Trump, we're gonna call you Donald Duck.”

Drawing fire from all candidates was China, which was frequently depicted as a bogeyman threatening American jobs, security and innovation. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said the US is in a “cold war” with the Asian power, while former South Carolina governor lamented the fact China produces so many essential items for America.

“We need to be focusing on companies that produce in America and supporting those companies that produce in America, not companies that are helping China,” she said.

The sole mention of the Middle East was in the context of Iran's nuclear programme, which according to Mr Burgum “pushes all of the Middle East closer to China and Russia.”

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the foreign policy discussion came from Ms Haley, who said that if she were president she would order special operations forces to attack Mexican cartels inside Mexico.

“What we will do is we will make sure that we send in our special operations and we will take out the cartels,” she said.

Several candidates endorsed get-tough policies on immigration, including militarising the border with Mexico.

Ms Haley is currently polling at 6.3 per cent, while Mr DeSantis is at 13.8 per cent and Mr Christie is at 2.9 per cent, according to poll amalgamator 538. Mr Trump, meanwhile, is at 54 per cent.

Mr Ramaswamy, at 6.3 per cent, who was credited with a good performance during the first debate, took fire from his Republican rivals several times.

“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Ms Haley told him after he gave a convoluted answer about whether he would ban TikTok, the Chinese-owned app that critics say can be used by Beijing to harvest data.

Mr DeSantis, once a favourite to challenge Mr Trump has seen his support collapse in recent months. He has been slow to attack Mr Trump in the past but has started to sharpen his critique of the man whose endorsement he once embraced.

“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be here on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record,” Mr DeSantis said.

Former vice president Mike Pence, who stands at 4.6 per cent, attacked President Joe Biden, saying he belonged on the “unemployment line” because “Bidenomics has failed”.

When confronted with a question about how to curtail the scourge of gun violence and mass shootings in America, several candidates reasserted their belief in gun rights and Mr Pence said he would implement an expedited death penalty for anyone involved in a mass shooting “so that they meet their fate in months, not years.”

The debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library highlighted the way the Republican Party has drifted from some of the former president’s core values. One of them was highlighted early on – immigration.

A clip of the 40th president calling for “amnesty” for people in the country illegally preceded a question about immigration policy.

Mr Christie, who once represented a Democratic state and backed a similar proposal a decade ago, distanced himself from that, saying it was effectively ancient history.

“We’re no longer in a position to do that any more,” Mr Christie said, calling for “enforcing the law.”

Updated: September 28, 2023, 4:07 AM