By Kate Scanlon
(OSV News) — Seven Republican candidates joined the Republican National Committee’s second debate of their party’s presidential primary process in California, sparring over topics including immigration, China policy, abortion and the economy.
The party’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, did not attend the debate hosted by Fox News, after also declining to participate in the first debate. Trump instead spent the day in the battleground state of Michigan, calling on autoworkers to support his vision of “economic nationalism.”
Several of the GOP candidates criticized Trump’s absence from the debate stage, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis describing him as “missing in action” and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie calling him “Donald Duck.”
The debate, which took place at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California, was moderated by Fox News hosts Stuart Varney and Dana Perino, as well as Univision’s Ilia Calderón.
However, the debate was chaotic, with candidates frequently talking over each other and the moderators at times slow to intervene. In one such moment, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley criticized businessman Vivek Ramaswamy’s shifting stance on the social media app TikTok, telling him, “every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber.”
Other participants in the debate were former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Asked about abortion ballot initiative losses for Republicans in 2022, and their electability on that issue in swing states, DeSantis — who signed Florida’s six-week abortion ban in April — said they can win by “leading with purpose and conviction.”
DeSantis also criticized Trump for suggesting that abortion was to blame for Republicans underperforming in the 2022 midterm elections and for calling some state-level abortion restrictions “terrible.”
“I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats; I think there’s other reasons for that,” DeSantis said. “The former president, he’s missing in action tonight. He’s had a lot to say about that. He should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Christie argued that he got elected as a pro-life governor in a blue state.
“And in fact, I was governor of the only blue state that’s represented up here,” Christie said of the debate stage. “This is where the fight is really tough for Republicans. And those are the states that we’re gonna have to try to win if we’re going to win the White House back.”
Christie said that he vetoed Planned Parenthood funding as governor, adding “the Democrats just kept sending it to me — and I kept saying no, because I believe in life.”
“But I also believe in states rights,” Christie said. “And I think we fought hard against Roe v. Wade for decades to say that states should make these decisions. So we’re going to have those fights in the states.”
He added, “What we need is a leader who could talk to people and make them understand that if you’re pro-life, you have to be pro-life for the entire life, not just the nine months in the womb.”
“The drug-addicted 16-year-old in the county lockup — her life is precious too,” Christie said, referencing an earlier debate topic of drug addiction. “And we need to be providing treatment to cure this as a disease; that is if you’re pro-life, you got to be pro-life for the entire life.”
The candidates drew hardline immigration stances, and criticized how President Joe Biden has handled border security.
DeSantis reiterated his previous pledge that “I’m going to use the U.S. military to go after the Mexican drug cartels.”
“They are killing our people,” he said.
Ramaswamy called for “ending birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants in this country.”
Pence was asked directly what he would do for “Dreamers,” migrants brought to the U.S. as children, since the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but he pivoted immediately to discussing U.S. border security and China policy.
Those comments overall marked a stark departure from previous Republican orthodoxy on immigration, particularly from the Reagan administration, at whose library the event was held.
During his presidency, Reagan signed into law the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a sweeping immigration reform bill that implemented tighter security at the U.S.-Mexico border, but also granted amnesty to some migrants who entered the country illegally. Both Reagan and President George H.W. Bush took executive actions to protect from deportation some migrant children and spouses of people covered by the amnesty.
Despite the contentious debate, candidates rejected a prompt from moderators to identify a rival they think should be “voted off the island” by writing their name on a whiteboard. DeSantis said he would not do that, as it was “disrespectful” to the other candidates on stage, who concurred.
When Varney suggested he saw Christie appearing to write a name, Christie said the name he had in mind wasn’t on the stage.
“Every person on this stage has shown respect for Republican voters to come here to express their views honestly, candidly, and directly and to take your questions,” Christie said, adding Trump “has not only divided our party. He’s divided families all over this country.
“He’s divided friends all over this country,” Christie said. “I’ve spoken to people — and I know everyone else has — who have sat at Thanksgiving dinner or at a birthday party and can’t have a conversation anymore if they disagree with Donald Trump. He needs to be pulled off the island to get out of this process.”
The third Republican presidential debate is scheduled for Nov. 8 in Miami.