(CNN) — The second 2024 Republican presidential primary debate ended just as it began: with former President Donald Trump – who hasn’t yet appeared alongside his rivals onstage – as the party’s dominant front-runner.
The seven GOP contenders in Wednesday night’s showdown at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California provided a handful of memorable moments, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley unloading what often seemed like the entire field’s pent-up frustration with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she said to him at one point.
Two candidates criticized Trump’s absence, as well. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was “missing in action.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the former president “Donald Duck” and said he “hides behind his golf clubs” rather than defending his record on stage.
The GOP field also took early shots at President Joe Biden. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said Biden, rather than joining the striking auto workers’ union on the picket line Tuesday in Michigan, should be on the southern border. Former Vice President Mike Pence said Biden should be “on the unemployment line.” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said Biden was interfering with “free markets.”
However, what played out in the debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and Univision, is unlikely to change the trajectory of a GOP race in which Trump has remained dominant in national and early-state polling.
And the frequently messy, hard-to-track crosstalk could have led many viewers to tune out entirely.
Here are takeaways from the second GOP primary debate:
Trump’s safe approach appears to pay off
Trump might have played it safe by skipping the debates and taking a running-as-an-incumbent approach to the 2024 GOP primary.
It’s hard to see, though, how he would pay a significant price in the eyes of the party’s voters for missing Wednesday night’s messy engagement.
Trump’s rivals took a few shots at him. DeSantis knocked him for deficit spending. Christie mocked him during the night’s early moments, calling him “Donald Duck” for skipping the debate and then in his final comments said he would vote Trump off the GOP island.
“This guy has not only divided our party – he’s divided families all over this country. He’s divided friends all over this country,” Christie said. “He needs to be voted off the island and he needs to be taken out of this process.”
However, Trump largely escaped serious scrutiny of his four years in the Oval Office from a field of rivals courting voters who have largely positive views of his presidency.
“Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest,” Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita said in a statement.
Candidates pile on Ramaswamy
Some of the candidates onstage didn’t want to have a repeat of the first debate, in which Ramaswamy managed to stand out as a formidable debater and showman.
Early in Wednesday’s debate, Scott went after the tech entrepreneur, saying his business record included ties to the Chinese Communist Party and money going to Hunter Biden. The visibly annoyed Ramaswamy shifted gears from praising all the other candidates onstage to defending his business record. But Scott and Ramaswamy ended up talking over each other.
A little later on Pence began an answer with a knock on Ramaswamy, saying, “I’m glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in China.” At another point after Ramaswamy had responded to a question about his use of TikTok, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley jumped in, saying, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber from what you say” and then going on to say, “We can’t trust you. We can’t trust you.” As Ramaswamy tried to readopt his unity tone, Scott could be heard trying to interrupt him.
DeSantis, Pence duck health care questions while Haley pounces
Despite the efforts of moderators to pin them down, DeSantis and Pence struggled to respond when challenged on their respective records on health care.
Asked about the Trump administration’s failure to end the Affordable Care Act as promised, Pence opted instead to answer a previous question about mass gun violence. When Fox host Dana Perino pushed Pence one more time to explain why Obamacare remains not just intact but popular, the former vice president once again demurred.
Fox’s Stuart Varney similarly pressed DeSantis to explain why 2.5 million Floridians don’t have health insurance.
DeSantis found a familiar foil for Republicans in California: inflation. Varney, though, said it didn’t explain why Florida has one of the highest uninsurance rates in the country, to which DeSantis had little response.
“Our state’s a dynamic state,” DeSantis said, before pointing to Florida’s population boom and the low level of welfare benefits offered there.
Haley, though, appeared ready to debate health care, arguing for transparency in prices to lessen the power of insurance companies and providers and overhauling lawsuit rules to make it harder to sue doctors.
“How can we be the best country in the world and have the most expensive health care in the world?” Haley said.
A messy first hour
The first hour of the second GOP primary debate was beset by interruptions, crosstalk and protracted squabbles between the candidates and moderators over speaking time.
That’s tough for viewers trying to make sense of it all but even worse for these candidates as they try to stand out as viable alternatives to the absentee Trump.
Further complicating the matter, some of the highest polling candidates – DeSantis and Haley – were among those least willing to dive into the muck during the first hour. The moderators repeatedly tried to clear the road for the Florida governor, who was all but absent from the proceedings for the first 15 minutes.
Ramaswamy has fared somewhat better, speaking louder – and faster – than most of his rivals. But even he has gotten bogged down at points when caught between his own talking points and cross-volleys of criticisms from frustrated candidates like Scott.
The moderator group will likely get criticism for losing control of the room within the first half-hour, but even a messy debate tells voters something about the people taking part.
DeSantis keeps up recent attacks on Trump
Before the first debate in Milwaukee, a top strategist for a pro-DeSantis super PAC told donors that “79% of the people tonight are going to watch the debate and turn it off after 19 minutes.”
By that measure, the Florida governor managed to first speak Wednesday night just in the nick of time – 16 minutes into the debate. And when he finally spoke, he continued the sharper attacks on the GOP front-runner that he has previewed in recent weeks.
DeSantis equated Trump’s absence in California to Biden, who DeSantis said was “completely missing in action for leadership” on the economy, blaming him for inflation and the autoworkers strike.
“And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.”
DeSantis accused Trump of adding “$7.8 trillion to the debt that set the scene for the inflation that we have.”
By the first commercial break, 35 minutes in, Christie was the only other candidate in the room who had levied any criticism of Trump.
Despite the shot taken at the person not on the stage, DeSantis later chided other candidates for fighting among each other instead of focusing on issues and Biden – one of many exchanges that was largely lost as the candidates talked over each other.