Who won the second Republican presidential debate?

The victor from the two-hour scrap was probably the man not on stage

From left, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy talk over each other at the debate. Reuters
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The two-hour debate between seven non-Donald Trump candidates hoping to win the Republican Party's nomination to run for president was a bitter and personal affair, with insults traded on the stage and plenty of barbs for the conspicuously absent former president.

But it was clear early on it would be impossible for an obvious “winner” to emerge on the stage at Wednesday night's slugfest, thanks to a chaotic format in which three moderators were unable to control the squabbling candidates as they spoke over one another and insisted on answering questions even when it was not their turn to speak.

Mr Trump's decision to skip the second Republican debate, as he did the first, was a good one. Staying away from the bickering pack of rivals, all of whom trail him by at least 40 points in opinion polls, only burnished his primacy and left would-be contenders fighting for scraps, perhaps a place in Mr Trump's cabinet should he win next year.

The nature of the debate, with the candidates each standing behind their own podium, left them appearing desperate to leave a mark in what seemed more like a callow popularity contest than a serious platform for candidates interviewing for the world's most powerful job.

“Honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber from what you say,” former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley told biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy after he gave an incoherent answer about whether he would ban TikTok, having just joined the China-owned platform after having dinner with boxer and influencer Jake Paul.

Ms Haley took some jabs, too, including an attack from Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina, who falsely accused her of spending $50,000 in taxpayers' money to buy curtains for her office when she was ambassador to the UN. It could have been a big deal if it were true (the curtains had actually been ordered under the Obama administration) and it weakened Mr Scott's performance on a night that otherwise gave him some good moments including his comments on slavery.

Unlike in the first debate, the candidates this time were more eager to take on Mr Trump, with several attacking him for failing to come to the debate. The first time round, all but two of what were then eight candidates raised their hands in a grovelling show of fealty when asked if they would still support Mr Trump if he wins the nomination, even if he were convicted of crimes.

“You're afraid of being on this stage and defending your record,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said, one of the two candidates who refused to bend the knee to Mr Trump.

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

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who rode to power thanks largely to riding on Mr Trump's coattails, had a dreadful night. He, too, called out Mr Trump for failing to attend but was mute for the first 16 minutes of the debate and soon reverted to his culture war rhetoric that seeks to demonise minority groups. The combative governor was once seen as a real threat to Mr Trump, but his disastrously run campaign and school-bully charisma have sent him ever lower in the polls.

And pity Mike Pence, the former vice president who said he would support Mr Trump, even though his boss has attacked him for having the temerity to certify Joe Biden as President on January 6, 2021 while a mob of Trump partisans attacked Congress.

His folksy persona might once have wooed conservative voters alongside the unpredictable Mr Trump, but he has fallen flat in today's MAGA world where there can only be one volume: yelling.

In an awkward attempt at charm, he answered a question about education by talking about his wife, a former teacher.

“I've got to admit, I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” he said.

As for North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who currently is polling at around 1 per cent, he answered a question about stopping mass shootings by attacking people who want gun control. Why on Earth was he even on the stage in the first place? If only organisers had winnowed the event down to three or four candidates, then the debate could have actually included some debate, instead of theatrics and shouting.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, was busy going over his usual grievances at a car plant outside Detroit. He hardly spoke of his rivals, mentioning them only as “job candidates” for a second Trump administration and suggesting none of them would be his pick for vice president running mate.

“Does anybody see a VP in the group? I don’t know,” he said.

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Published: September 28, 2023, 4:41 PM