Relations with China, fentanyl overdoses and attacking former President Donald Trump – despite his absence – dominated the second Republican presidential debate late Wednesday.
The debate went full circle as it started and ended in the same way: candidates telling the audience they planned to defeat the former Republican leader.
“And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.”
DeSantis was positioned in the center of the stage, a place reserved for the attending leader in the polls, according to the moderators. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy flanked his sides.
According to polling site 538 (run by ABC News), DeSantis sits at 13.9% favorability in the Republican Primaries so far. Trump ranks around 54%.
Trump has missed the first two debates, though he did meet the qualifications to attend. For this most recent second debate, he held a rally in Detroit at an auto parts manufacturer criticizing automakers for electric cars, as the United Auto Workers strike across the country.
Four other candidates were present in Simi Valley, California, to debate, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Aside from fiery arguments, the candidates all agreed on one thing: to take down Trump.
“Trump, he hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions,” Christie said, who mainly avoided calling out the former president in the first debate. “He puts $7 trillion on the debt, he should be in this room to answer those questions.”
DeSantis touted his decrease in taxes and said he plans to bolster the country’s economy, the same way he said he did in Florida.
“As governor of Florida, we cut taxes, we ran surpluses, we paid down over 25% of our state debt,” DeSantis said.
Later, Pence called out DeSantis’ claim of cutting spending in Florida.
“You’ve increased spending in Florida by 30%,” Pence said.
As of July, Florida has paid $5 billion in state debt, over 25% of it. However, before DeSantis took office, the state budget was about $88.7 billion. In 2023, DeSantis signed a state budget of $116.5 billion, according to the Framework for Freedom budget proposal.
DeSantis also mentioned sending federal dollars back to Washington D.C., but federal funds make up 34% of his proposed 2023-2024 fiscal budget, according to PolitiFact.
Candidates called out the Chinese Communist Party on several occasions and attacked Ramaswamy for his company, Roivant Sciences, and its involvement with China. He later said he pulled out of the deal with the country in 2018 – but Haley and Pence both reminded him that that wasn’t that long ago.
“You were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden [with] millions of dollars was a partner of yours as well,” Scott said.
Throughout the debate, Haley repeatedly brought the conversation back to China, no matter the topic.
Haley attacked Trump’s China policy and said he was too focused on the U.S.-China trade relationship but not enough about possible threats from the country.
When it came to drugs, the group argued how fentanyl overdoses in the country were a huge issue. DeSantis said he plans on cracking down on drug cartels across the Mexico border to end the problem. In 2022, the governor enacted a Florida law that increases penalties for trafficking fentanyl.
Regarding guns, Pence said as president he would pass a federal expedited death penalty for any shooter in a mass shooting and referenced the trial of Nikolas Cruz, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High gunman.
“It is unconscionable that the Parkland shooter, Ron, is actually going to spend his life behind bars in Florida,” said Pence.
Previously, DeSantis said Cruz deserved the death penalty and subsequently signed a new law in Florida that makes it easier for judges to sentence criminal defendants to death in capital murder cases.
It was not immediately clear how Pence’s idea would overcome legal jurisdictional challenges of moving all such prosecutions to federal courts, or how U.S. judges could expedite such cases without violating the rights of defendants to challenge lower court verdicts or rulings.
Pence later said he wants to make the federal government smaller and return all Obamacare funding to the states.
All candidates seemed to agree with one another on their opinions of the future of K-12 education. Candidates supported parental choice in schools and disagreed with allowing children to pursue surgeries to transition genders.
“Transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder … parents have the right to know … it is not compassionate to affirm a kid’s confusion,” Ramaswamy said.
The third Republican presidential debate is set for Nov. 8 in Miami. To earn a spot in this debate, candidates must secure 4% of the vote in multiple polls and 70,000 unique donors, according to the Republican National Committee.
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