republican debate

Republican Debate: At Least 33 Things You Missed

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos Getty Images/Dmitriy Viktorov

The second GOP debate between the top 2024 Republican presidential candidates who aren’t named Donald Trump was a bit of a mess. There weren’t as many contenders as at the first debate last month: Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Chris Christie, and Doug Burgum all met the RNC’s stricter threshold for entry this time (Asa Hutchinson did not) and many of them tried to get the most speaking time — often simultaneously. The two-hour showdown was moderated by Fox Business and Univision at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Trump, the current front-runner, once again kept his distance and delivered some counterprogramming at a nonunion rally in Michigan.

Below is a reverse-chronological collection of some of the most memorable moments, as well as real-time analysis from Intelligencer’s team of writers and editors.

Who spoke the most, presumably not counting all the speaking-over-others time

The Trump-less debating will continue, shocking no one

And with that, this extremely inane debate is over at last

Last question of the night is too mean-spirited for this friendly bunch

Doug Burgum was surely relieved, while Chris Christie seized the opportunity to get in one final dig at Trump:

Scott and Haley get into inscrutable fight about curtains, encapsulating this debate

(The video does not make this exchange any more enlightening.)

Tonight’s Mr. Irrelevant

DeSantis has had a decent debate, but …

DeSantis did manage to interrupt Tim Scott and advertise his credentials to audience applause — but that moment came about 100 minutes into the proceedings.

Scott blinks, Haley hits

Tim Scott’s troubles continue. He was specifically asked to explain why he would be a better president than Nikki Haley — who, as the moderator noted, had appointed him to the Senate — and his answer did not mention Haley. Nonetheless, she was given rebuttal time, and she quickly said Scott hasn’t accomplished much of anything in the Senate. Pretty clear indicator of which candidate has the killer instinct.

We’re all a little dumber at the end of this debate

Nikki Haley’s comment to Vivek Ramaswamy — “Every time I hear you I feel a little dumber” — may have been the perfect summary of the second debate for Republican candidates who aren’t going to be the presidential nominee. The Fox Business moderators asked a series of shockingly substantive questions (on Obamacare, education, and other serious policy issues), but the candidates mostly ignored the questions to either deliver scripted bits on the subject of their choice or to shout over each other.

Probably none of this will be remembered next week, except possibly the generalized irritation the field has shown with Ramaswamy.

Is anyone still watching this?

There’s a half-hour to go, and the candidates may have gotten bored into submission by Mike Pence’s just-concluded self-designation as the Reagan successor. But overall, the inability of the moderators to control the debaters, leading to constant cross-talking and confusion, has ruined this debate and has unquestionably depressed viewership. You can almost hear the channels changing.

Vivek and Haley go after each other in spiciest exchange of the night

“Every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber,” Nikki Haley remarked to Vivek Ramaswamy on the topic of China and TikTok, in what sounded like a pre-fab line, but one that was met with its intended crowd reaction.

Haley and Ramaswamy, who has been even more voluble than usual tonight, then yelled over each other for an extended stretch, in keeping with the spirit of the evening. It seems clear that Haley, like Mike Pence, holds a special disdain for Ramaswamy. It’s all a bit reminiscent of a certain dynamic in the Democratic primary four years ago.

Biden and Pence have sex with their wives

Joe Biden is “sleeping with a member of the teachers’ union,” Chris Christie said, a statement crass enough to briefly cut through the noise onstage. Biden has said a variation of the same line for years, but in Christie’s mouth, it was an attack, part of a broadside on teachers’ unions.

Unfortunately for us all, Pence then had to make everything more awkward by boasting that he’d been sleeping with a teacher, his wife, for 38 years. Neither I nor the American people needed to think about this, but here we are in hell together. It’s kind of sexist, but mostly it’s just gross, and it drives home one essential fact about the people on tonight’s stage: They are unrelatable freaks. There is something deeply off-putting about each person onstage, from Doug Burgum’s eyebrows to Ron DeSantis’s rictus grin, and none of them will be president.

Scott is being eaten up

Poor Tim Scott. School choice (which he sometimes acts like he invented) has now come up in both debates, but for the second time another candidate got to address it. This time it was his South Carolina rival, Nikki Haley, which had to really hurt. But it got worse: Chris Christie got to attack teachers’ unions, another Scott signature. He really needs to shine in this debate, but the moderators are doing him no favors.

If you learned one thing tonight

Tim Scott tries to have a moment after complaining about visibility

Other than that, how’s the debate going?

Even the commercial breaks in this thing are bizarre

Pence answers Obamacare question … by promising to execute mass shooters

In the most abrupt effort to pivot from a question in debate history, Mike Pence was asked what he’d do to replace (or accept) Obamacare, and instead he made a speech on mass shooters, proposing a federal death penalty for them. It’s a very strange idea indeed that mass shooters (most of whom are killed by law enforcement during their atrocities) will be deterred by the fear of facing death. But then moderator Dana Perino capped the moment by asking the former veep: “Does that mean Obamacare is here to stay?”

Desantis’s health-care dodge

DeSantis answers a question about Florida having the highest uninsured rate in the country by blaming inflation. “We’ve got to address the underlying problem with Bidenomics,” he says.

This makes no sense at all — why would the national inflation rate explain why Florida has a higher rate of people without health insurance than other states? In fact, the underlying problem is DeSantis’s refusal to accept Medicaid expansion.

Trump can’t be too worried by what’s unfolding tonight

Seven candidates talking over each other for 45 minutes has not allayed the anxieties of anti-Trump GOP donors.

Reporting live from the Trump rally …

Trump’s audio has kind of sucked for the majority of this event so I’m not sure I heard all of his riffs, but the only reference to the primary field I heard was in passing, he mentioned the “job candidates” out there at the debate and how he wouldn’t be hiring any of them as VP.

Denying the results of the 2020 election is proving tricky on the campaign trail, though. During his remarks, he stumbled to describe the end of his presidency. “My second term — which is, sort of, happening now,” he said. He added that he doesn’t “want the results” of this term, seemingly referring to Biden’s first term. Whose term is it?!

He’s speaking with aid of a teleprompter, but those comments certainly seemed ad-libbed.

Trump is surely finished after this devastating Christie one-liner

Vivek utters a line that sums up the evening — unintentionally

Vivek gets socked over a Chinese business

Ramaswamy was the aggressive bully in the first debate in Milwaukee. But other candidates appeared to have planned on tearing him a new one in tonight’s event. Tim Scott blasted him for opening a subsidiary in China as a tech executive; Ramaswamy tried to fire back, noting he had later closed that subsidiary.

Another sign that Biden is looking ahead to the general

After Ron DeSantis finally went after Donald Trump (by name, even!), Joe Biden echoed his attack. With Trump up by 40-plus points, Biden isn’t really bothering going after any of the candidates onstage tonight.

Tim Scott dodges sensitive question

It only took DeSantis a few months, but he finally attacked Trump

The long wait for a direct DeSantis criticism of Trump’s record has ended. The Florida governor, whose Trumpism-without-Trump message has now famously misfired, directly criticized Trump for being “missing in action” when he should be on the stage defending his fiscal record, which DeSantis suggested had contributed to the country’s economic problems. True to form, though, DeSantis is (so far) criticizing Trump strictly from the right, hoping the former president’s hyperconservative followers (especially in Iowa) will think twice.

Finishing their sentences

My favorite loophole is the rule allowing candidates to finish their sentence after the bell, which they exploit by using incredibly lengthy compound sentences: “I will put a stop to that [bell rings] … by implementing my 17-part plan, the first part of which is …”

The debate has been an interrupt-a-thon so far

The GOP’s game on autoworkers

There was a predictable effort to suggest that the autoworkers have been hoodwinked into thinking that their adversary is management rather than Joe Biden/EVs. Overall, I think it’s clear that the GOP is not interested in even really pretending to be heterodox on organized labor, only in framing itself as aligned with industrial workers against job-killing environmentalists.

A real hesitancy to criticize the UAW strike

Very interesting that the candidates were hesitant to directly criticize the UAW’s strike or its aims. Scott briefly criticized the strike but changed the subject to immigration. Mike Pence, who praised right to work and capitalism, did not criticize the UAW. It’s a sign of the popularity of unions right now and perhaps the degree to which Republican anti-elitist rhetoric has made working-class institutions difficult to target.

Ding! Ding! DeSantis attacks Trump.

Vivek Ramaswamy’s hair is the eighth participant in this debate

An intended Pence laugh line gets a few tepid chuckles in the room

Well, there goes the stakes of the debate

Tim Scott dodges sensitive question about auto unions with a predictable pivot

Sure you want to make the Reagan comparison?

“Reagan was the best” and “old presidents allegedly suffering from cognitive decline shouldn’t get to serve second terms” aren’t the most complementary messages.

First question goes heavy on bad national mood — and Reagan

Trump called the UAW’s strike pointless but demands their endorsement

Donald Trump’s great appeal to the working man fell predictably flat on Wednesday night. The former president dedicated most of his time at a nonunion auto-parts supplier in Michigan to himself. He bragged about his tariffs, said the United Auto Workers strike was pointless because EVs will put autoworkers out of business, and urged the union’s president, Shawn Fain, to endorse him for president. (This will not happen.) Sprinkled in among the usual bromides were claims that the transition to electric vehicles was “assassinating” the auto industry and that the same industry was “gasping its last breaths” when he became president. (This is not true.) Trump, whom we must credit for a certain base creativity, even found a way to work school choice and, later, “the sexual mutilation of children” into his remarks. He pinged back and forth between culture-war smears and the need for gasoline-powered vehicles and said the word union maybe once or twice — usually to demand an endorsement. Though he did say he supports the striking workers and their fight for fair wages, he did so only to rail against union leaders for supporting Biden. Again. This is all workers can expect from Trump. Narcissism, a few bad jokes, and a lot of hot air.

Biden does some counterprogramming of his own

Some strategy chatter

The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey passes along some DeSantis hype:

Allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis say he will attack Donald Trump tonight more than he did in the past debate as his struggling campaign looks for momentum. We’ll see if he follows through. The Florida governor, who trails Trump badly in the polls, has been loath to attack Trump on his indictments knowing most Republicans are skeptical of the charges. Expect attacks to be about Trump’s record as president, his allies say.

And NBC News’ Hallie Jackson reports:

A source familiar with Ramaswamy debate prep suggests he’ll aim to be a bit more “moderate” in tone this time, more “unifying” — but don’t be surprised if things get spicy if he’s attacked.

And Christie actually posted a hype tweet:

Tonight’s candidate staging

The Washington Post notes who’s front and center and who’s literally waiting in the wings, all based on where they are in the polls:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will take center stage at Wednesday’s debate, with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy flanking him on either side, according to Fox Business, which is hosting the event.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) will be next to Haley and Ramaswamy, with former vice president Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on the wings of the stage.

Yes, the GOP primary still matters

Earlier today, Ed Kilgore dismissed the dismissals:

Let’s give voters a chance to weigh in at least minimally before dismissing them and the other candidates as extras in the horror movie of Trump’s return from what should have been a political grave. He may be an “existential threat to American democracy,” but American democracy deserves an opportunity to defend itself.

What it looks like when the front-runner who’s up by 40 points isn’t in the building

What I’m watching for tonight: Can Ron DeSantis keep his campaign alive?

DeSantis’s campaign has been in decline for longer than the Ottoman Empire, and it is quickly reaching a terminal stage from which no escape is possible. The previous debate gave Nikki Haley a boost as a more traditional Republican alternative to Trump, eating into a share of DeSantis’s support. (DeSantis is trying to simultaneously court traditional Republicans while out-Trumping Trump — Haley is taking away the former.)

My eyebrows raised very high when I read this, in Semafor:

“If he doesn’t do well, if he doesn’t clearly establish that he’s the leader of this debate, then I think [Nikki] Haley probably moves to the second place position kind of firmly, and probably becomes a donor favorite, and probably continues to get a lot of good media treatment,” a Republican consultant backing DeSantis told Semafor. “If he doesn’t do well here, in my opinion, he’s gotta drop out — if he doesn’t want to be embarrassed.”

A Republican consultant backing DeSantis! (How’s that for loyalty?) If Haley can displace DeSantis as the (very, very distant) second-place candidate, he is in deep trouble. So look for Haley to try to establish that Russia-fightin’, tax-cuttin’, Reagan-lovin’ persona. And look for DeSantis to try to rip her head off.

Reminder: Haley got the only real bump last time

One of the dominant features of the first debate in Milwaukee involved sharp clashes between Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, both of whom seemed to benefit from their fisticuffs. For Haley, the tech tyro represented a Trump surrogate (particularly on issues like Ukraine) she could attack without consequences. Haley also did Ramaswamy the favor of taking conservative Establishment positions he could attack, bolstering his reputation as a MAGA Bad Boy unafraid of mixing it up with (present or former) governors and senators and vice-presidents. It will be interesting to see if these two pols continue their symbiotic relationship in a second debate. Haley has heightened expectations to meet and Ramaswamy at some point needs to make it clear he’s not running for a midlevel cabinet post or ambassadorship in a second Trump administration.

A spotlight for Dana Perino

The longtime Fox News host is moderating tonight. As the New York Times notes, it’s a big test for Perino, who has kind of kept her head down at the network:

It will be the biggest moment for Ms. Perino at Fox News since she began co-hosting “The Five” in 2011. Not known for being as provocative or partisan as many of her colleagues behind the desk, Ms. Perino, 51, has spent a good part of the last decade trying to thrive as a Bush Republican working for a network where loyalty to former President Donald J. Trump is often the ticket to high ratings and the career advancement that accompanies them.

Current and former colleagues said that she had managed to persevere at Fox by being neither a Trump supplicant nor a fierce critic. During the raucous discussions on “The Five,” she can often be seen ducking the fray, flashing a knowing smile as her co-hosts mock Mr. Trump’s liberal antagonists.

The viewership factor

NBC News’ Steve Kornacki is looking forward to seeing the ratings:

Without Trump, and with this debate airing on Fox Business Network, a lower profile outlet, will there be a drop-off in viewership? If so, how much? Will it fall below all of the 2015-16 debates? Far below? If it does, it would only buttress what the polls are suggesting: that Republican voters are tuning out what once looked like a wide open, suspenseful nominating contest.  

Trump’s cynical sideshow

The former president’s counterprograming for tonight’s debate is a speech to workers at a nonunion auto-parts manufacturer outside Detroit.

Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones criticizes the media coverage of Trump’s visit for falsely perpetuating the idea that Trump is some populist who is going to Detroit to support striking autoworkers:

 When the Trump campaign said the former president was speaking to striking autoworkers, reporters should have hedged. That is what Trump said. It is not necessarily what he will do. When additional reporting confirms that Trump was speaking to a non-union shop, that news should be reflected prominently in later coverage and analysis. This shouldn’t be difficult, and yet the press struggles. 

Eric Levitz, meanwhile, offers a brief history lesson for anyone who thinks Trump is pro-labor:

When it comes to policymaking that concerns all working people as working people, however, Republicans remain as committed to the interests of bosses as they’ve ever been. Under Trump, the GOP restricted workers’ rights to organize certain categories of workplaces, made it easier for employers to bust unions, denied guaranteed overtime pay to 12.5 million workers, effectively transferring $1.2 billion from their paychecks to their bosses’ bank accounts, proposed a rule allowing companies with fewer than 250 workers to cease reporting workplace injuries and illness statistics to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), asked the Supreme Court to uphold the right of employers to include forced arbitration clauses in contracts (thereby denying workers the capacity to press complaints against their bosses in open court), and restored the right of serial labor-law violators to compete for government contracts, among other things.

DeSantis and Scott need to distinguish themselves

All seven of tonight’s debaters should feel a sense of some urgency as all of them individually and collectively are chasing a front-running candidate who will likely pay no price for ignoring them. Time to change the dynamics of this lopsided race is steadily running out. But two candidates in particular really need a big night. One is Ron DeSantis, whose support seems to be rapidly crumbling in New Hampshire and South Carolina even as he remains far behind Trump in Iowa, on which he is betting everything. The other is Tim Scott, who was invisible during the first debate and in danger of being totally eclipsed by the woman (Nikki Haley) who appointed him to the Senate.

You have to figure that such donors and party leaders who have not already consigned themselves to a third straight Trump nomination will soon get together and anoint a single challenger while pushing everyone else toward the exit. Until recently, the odds-on favorite for that designation was DeSantis. That’s not so clear now. Tonight’s debate may make that essential “culling” of the field easier, or more complicated.

Who needs live, human debate when there’s an AI Asa Hutchinson chatbot?

Hutchinson won’t be onstage giving his own thoughts at the Reagan Library tonight, having not met the RNC qualifications, but if you to know what an “AI interface” thinks he thinks about something, he and his campaign have made sure you can get some “realistic answers”:

Cue up the Rocky theme song

The Hill asked the candidates about their pre-debate prep:

Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign told The Hill that he plans to spend time “in prayer, in scripture, and in the gym” after being in California with his family and team members in the days leading up to the closely watched event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Former Vice President Mike Pence will “get a workout in, do some light prep, and spend time with his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter,” his campaign told The Hill. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also plans to work out before the big event, his campaign said, as well as spend time with his wife and two sons. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s pre-debate routine “will include plenty of Bruce Springsteen,” his campaign said.

The other language candidates need to watch

At Politico, body-language expert Joe Navarro offers some advice to the GOP hopefuls — including how Ron DeSantis “needs to chill”:

With his furrowed glabella (the area between the eyebrows), tense face and forceful vocal tone, Ron DeSantis’ nonverbal language screamed “I’m angry!” at the first debate. Anger is fine when it is warranted, but not as your default expression. Instead, the governor should strike a friendly, approachable tone at the beginning of the debate, and save the harsh frowns and agitato voice for beating back direct challenges. When he says everything in the same register of grievance, without variation or dynamics, his most important points blend in with the rest of his speech, washing over the audience. Contrast is key.

Our own Margaret Hartmann has been tracking DeSantis’s physical awkwardness for a while now. (Luckily for the governor, moderators are unlikely to ask the candidates to eat anything on stage other than their own words.)

Burgum makes it in, barely

The long-shot candidate (and North Dakota governor) only qualified on Monday, as the Bismarck Tribune reported:

[H]is campaign surprised pundits across the country on Saturday when it seemed to qualify for Wednesday’s debate stage in California thanks to a Trafalgar Group national poll that had the governor at 3.2%. The RNC on Monday night confirmed that the final slate of candidates included Burgum.

The Trafalgar poll is a departure from most of Burgum’s showings in national surveys: polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight had him averaging 1% support as of Tuesday. It’s also a reflection of the slightly better reception he’s been garnering in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where his campaign has focused much of its energy. 

This is a developing story.

Will Vivek be able to make a case for himself?

In his preview of the matchup, Intelligencer’s Ed Kilgore noted everything each candidate needed to accomplish tonight, including the newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy:

The tech tyro had some breakout moments in Milwaukee but mostly came across as the absent Trump’s wingman. That’s enough to keep him aloft in national polls, where he’s virtually tied with Nikki Haley for third place in the RCP averages; he’s a relatively strong fourth in New Hampshire as well. But unless he wants to hit a ceiling whereby his main ambition would become a mid-level cabinet post in a second Trump administration, Ramaswamy needs to more clearly explain why MAGA folk should support him rather than The Master. Making himself the front-runner for the 2044 nomination contest is a questionable return on the investment of personal wealth he’s already made in this campaign.

Read the rest of Ed’s preview, including how Chris Christie will now have an opportunity to consolidate the anti-Trump vote, here.

Who won last time?

For anybody who didn’t tune in to the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, our collection of highlights and lowlights is here, and Intelligencer’s Eric Levitz rounded up the winners and losers here.

This post has been and will be updated.

Republican Debate: 33 Things You Missed