With Trump absent, other candidates trade barbs in unusual debate format

Several Republican presidential hopefuls took the stage on September 27 in the second of several debates leading up to the 2024 primaries. The GOP debate was hosted by Fox News and held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. 

The format of the event included one minute for candidates to respond to questions from the moderators and thirty seconds for rebuttals. Deviating from the conventional debate format, there were no opening and closing statements. The majority of the questions proposed were directed at specific candidates rather than the entire field. 

Seven candidates qualified for the debate; entry requirements were more stringent than those for the first debate, held on August 23 in Milwaukee. The RNC stated  that each candidate must “hit at least 3 percent in two national polls, or 3 percent in one national poll and 3 percent in two polls conducted from separate early nominating states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada), in order to qualify.” Additionally, candidates were required to have “a total of at least 50,000 unique donors, with at least 200 unique donors from at least 20 states or territories.” Participating candidates were also required to sign a pledge promising their support for the eventual GOP nominee in the general election.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum all participated. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who qualified for and participated in the first debate, failed to make the stage due to poor polling numbers. 

Also absent was the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald J. Trump. Trump, who leads his rivals nationally by more than 40 points according to a RealClearPolitics aggregate, instead participated in an event with striking autoworkers in Michigan. The 45th president has stated that he has no plans to attend any future debates sponsored by the RNC.

The debate itself began with a discussion of the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike and each candidate’s economic proposals for resolving this and similar crises. The candidates all largely pinned the strike on President Joe Biden’s economic policies, with Burgum claiming Biden’s “subsidies for electric vehicle companies” triggered the upheaval. Pence said of President Biden: “He doesn’t belong on the picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line.” DeSantis, while largely concurring with the rest of the field, also blamed  President Trump for “adding 7 trillion to the debt,” which he claimed exacerbated inflation. 

The event grew more contentious as the topic turned to foreign policy. Ramaswamy faced attacks for his business dealings in China. Scott alleged that Ramaswamy had been in business “with the very firm that gave Hunter Biden millions,” a charge that Ramaswamy adamantly denied. Pence and Haley also criticized Ramaswamy for his opposition to military aid to Ukraine, with Haley asserting, “A win for Russia is a win for China… But I forgot, you like China.” Ramaswamy responded by claiming that his businesses “got the hell out of [China]” many years ago.

This dynamic was mirrored when the questions turned to immigration. Ramaswamy called for an end to birthright citizenship, a policy that has made it difficult to expel illegal immigrants by granting their US-born children full legal status. Christie chastised former President Trump for “only building 52 miles” of his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall. Christie also called out Trump for refusing to participate in the debate, pejoratively labeling him “Donald Duck.”

On social issues, the focus was placed on Ron DeSantis, who faced questions from the moderators regarding his curriculum on slavery and approval of a six-week abortion ban in Florida. DeSantis defended his record, claiming that the history standards were written by “descendants of slaves.” He further stated that he rejected the idea that the pro-life movement was to blame for Republican losses in the 2022 midterm elections. The moderators posed a question about transgender ideology to Mike Pence, who affirmed his belief in “parents’ rights” in their children’s education. Vivek Ramaswamy called transgenderism a “mental illness” and vowed to ban “sex-reassignment” procedures for minors. 

Reactions amongst Notre Dame students to the debate were decidedly mixed. Sophomore Eric Gordy was critical of the event altogether, telling the Rover, “[The debate] was a relatively uninteresting display of lackluster candidates who are all chasing Trump’s commanding lead in the polls.” 

Junior Luca Fanucchi said he thought the moderators “did not prepare good questions,” but nonetheless believed that “the bright spot in this performance was Governor DeSantis. In my mind, he distinguished himself as the true statesman of the bunch.” 

It is unclear how much the debate will sway voters. Polls taken after the event showed a slight bump in support for Trump and Nikki Haley, with the rest of the field either remaining stagnant or losing ground. The Fox moderators received backlash for asking candidates to write down the name of the person they wanted to “vote off” the debate stage next. Junior Catalina Scheider Galiñanes told the Rover she was “glad [the candidates] did not engage,” with that question, adding that she wished to see them “actually address policy issues” rather than simply “present their campaign slogans.”

The next debate will be hosted on November 8.

Shri Thakur is a sophomore studying economics and constitutional studies. He can usually be found listening to Taylor Swift while thinking about the legacy of the Bourbon monarchy. You can email him at sthakur3@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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