Call it the Avis-Rent-A-Car debate: “We’re number two. We try harder.”
Perhaps it was the fact that the candidates were facing off for the second time. Or maybe it was the reality of a serious contest for second place behind prohibitive frontrunner Donald Trump. Whatever the reason, the seven candidates on stage at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., had a more aggressive — some might say desperate — tone than in the first contest.
More elbows were thrown, and more answers were interrupted by crosstalk as the candidates ignored Reagan’s 11th Commandment and “spoke ill” of their fellow Republicans.
Particularly Vivek Ramaswamy.
On both offense and defense, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had a good night, just as she did in the first debate. She took on all comers, including an odd Palmetto-State spat with Sen. Tim Scott that involved curtains. Haley’s hard-hitting performance sent the message that she’s ready to fight for the non-Trump frontrunner spot in this race. And given her uptick in the polls, she might soon get there.
The Trump campaign apparently thinks so. It sent out an email attacking “The Real Nikki Haley” before the debate was even over.
Just like the first debate, Ramaswamy was once again the most popular target of the night, with Haley going full “Billy Madison” on him at one point.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Haley said after listening to Ramaswamy explain his stance on using TikTok to reach young voters. “We can’t trust you.”
Scott also went after Ramaswamy over his corporate ties to China. (In 2017, Ramaswamy partnered with the private equity arm of CITIC Group, a state-owned Chinese investment firm.)
“Vivek just said we were all good people, and I appreciate that. Because last debate, he said we were all bought and paid for,” Scott said. “I thought about that for a little while and said, ‘You know, I can’t imagine how you could say that knowing that you are just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden millions of dollars was a partner of yours as well.’”
Ramaswamy seemed somewhat subdued compared to his first debate performance, turning down the “Ted Talk” vibe and even acknowledging at one point he didn’t know all the answers. It may be a sign the focus-group feedback from his first debate performance was less than optimal.
Thanks to his poll numbers, Gov. Ron DeSantis held the center spot on stage. While they may have faded over the past few weeks, he still holds a solid lead (14.4 percent) over third-place Haley (5.8 percent) in national polls.
(In New Hampshire, Haley is safely in second place, and DeSantis barely edges out Ramaswamy for third.)
In the first debate, DeSantis seemed somewhat reluctant to attack Trump directly, talking about a double standard in the justice system rather than Trump’s behavior, for example. In the second debate, DeSantis went out of his way to hit Trump, particularly on his decision to skip the event.
“Where’s Joe Biden? He’s completely missing in action from leadership,” DeSantis said during a question about America’s $33 trillion debt. “And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record, where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt.”
DeSantis also called out Trump over his attacks on the pro-life movement in the GOP.
“I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats,” DeSantis said, reacting to a theme Trump has embraced. “And he should be here explaining his comments, to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a ‘terrible thing.’ I want him to look into the eyes and tell people who have been fighting this fight for a long time.”
An odd stumble by the moderators gave Chris Christie the opportunity to press his case for dumping Trump from the GOP ticket. Early in the debate, Christie took a ham-fisted swipe at Trump that didn’t appear to land.
“You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record,” Christie said in remarks directed at Trump. “You’re ducking these things, and let me tell you what’s going to happen. You keep doing that. No one’s going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
Later in the debate, moderator Dana Perino told the candidates to use a notepad on the lectern in front of them to write the name of the candidate they wanted to “vote off the island” — a reference to the reality TV show “Survivor.”
The candidates refused to play along with the awkward stunt. But when pressed, Christie said he would vote Trump out of the race.
“I vote Donald Trump off the island right now,” he said. “Every person on this stage has shown respect to Republican voters, to express their views honestly, candidly, and directly, and to take your questions honestly… This guy has not only divided our party. He’s divided families all over this country.”
Gov. Doug Burgum (R-N.D.), who barely made the cut to return to the debate stage, struggled to get mic time and took to interrupting the entire debate in order to be heard.
Republican-leaning voters gathered at the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) field office in Portsmouth for a debate watch party hosted by the New Hampshire chapter of AFP. The attacks on Ramaswamy inspired jeers from the crowd of 100 or so, who appeared to enjoy the entertainment value of seeing Vivek repeatedly zinged by Haley, Scott, and former Vice President Mike Pence. But did it impact how they plan to vote?
Before the debate began, AFP-NH Executive Director Greg Moore asked how many in attendance had decided who to back in the primary. Only a handful of people said they had.
Speaking with members of the crowd afterward, it didn’t appear the debate made up many minds.
Mike from Rye complained about the frequent crosstalk and the inability to hear the candidates making their case. “I’ve seen them all live, except Ron DeSantis, and it’s much better.”
The consensus among political pros was that the debate did little to endanger Trump’s status as the frontrunner but that Haley and DeSantis generally had good nights.
“Haley was strong the first hour but great the second hour, a very good night,” one New Hampshire GOP operative said. “DeSantis was better tonight than the first debate. Not amazing, but good.”
“And everyone hates Vivek.”
Veteran GOP strategist Mike Murphy said, “I give it to Nikki, but not by much. She was not as strong nor stood out as cleanly as last time, but she did have the line of the night,” he tweeted. “DeSantis easily wins most improved, but… he’s still DeSantis. Scott showed up this time, but no magic. Nice Christie finish.”
D.C.-based GOP consultant Brad Todd told NBC News the debates play to Haley’s strengths.
“Debates are really only about two things. They’re about showing off your brain and proving you have guts,” Todd said. “She’s going to pass the first one every time. So then, the burden on her is picking and winning a fight.”