Republican candidates led by Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley sharpened their attacks on Donald Trump and each other during a punchy and sometimes chaotic presidential debate, as they scrapped to stand out in a crowded field still dominated by the former president.
The taunts from Republican rivals were mainly focused on Trump’s decision not to participate in the party’s two debates so far. He chose instead to speak at an event in Michigan on Wednesday to rally support from rustbelt autoworkers.
“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 $7.8tn to the debt that set the stage for the inflation that we have,” said DeSantis, the Florida governor, who remains his top challenger for the Republican nomination.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, later jumped in to bash Trump for being “afraid” of being on stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California.
“You’re ducking these things . . . You keep doing that, nobody up here’s going to keep calling you Donald Trump, we’re going to call you Donald Duck,” Christie said.
Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s ambassador to the UN and has made foreign policy experience part of her campaign, went further, criticising the former president for being “wrong” on China.
“He focused on trade with China, he didn’t focus on the fact that they were buying up our farmland, he didn’t focus on the fact that they were killing Americans,” Haley said.
“He didn’t focus on the fact that they were stealing $600bn in intellectual property. He didn’t focus on the fact that they put a spy base off our shores in Cuba,” she added.
Trump has skipped the primary debates as he tries to position himself as the presumed GOP candidate, targeting his attacks on President Joe Biden rather than his fellow Republicans.
At the end of the debate, Chris LaCivita, Trump’s senior adviser, said it was “as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest”.
During the debate, which spanned immigration, crime and abortion as well as economic and foreign policy, some candidates also tried to attack each other.
The exchanges are likely to cement views that DeSantis and Haley are the most viable alternatives to Trump, with most of the others struggling to gain traction.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech investor who drew attention for his performance during the first debate, came under attack from candidates including Haley.
“Honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber,” she said, as they sparred over the threat posed by TikTok, the social media app. “You’re now wanting kids to get on this social media that’s dangerous for all of us? . . . We can’t trust you.”
Haley also criticised DeSantis for his scepticism of more aid for Ukraine, after the rift within the party over Washington’s support for Kyiv spilled out into the open in one section of the debate
“This is not a ‘territorial dispute’,” Haley said, referring to how DeSantis had dismissed the war early this year. “A win for Russia is a win for China.”
The debate began with the 2024 rivals blaming Biden’s handling of the economy for the strike rattling the car industry and criticising him for taking the historic step of joining a picket line of union workers this week.
“Biden showed up on that picket line, but why are those workers actually there? It’s because of all the spending that he has pushed through in the economy that has raised the inflation,” said Haley.
“He doesn’t belong on a picket line, he belongs on an unemployment line,” said Mike Pence, the former vice-president. “Bidenomics has failed . . . Joe Biden’s Green New Deal agenda is good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.”
But speaking in Michigan earlier, Trump had begged for the endorsement of Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers president.
“Get your union leaders to endorse me, and I’ll take care of the rest,” Trump told the rally.
Fain has withheld an endorsement for Biden, saying it must be “earned”. But he has been openly critical of Trump, declining to meet the former president this week in Michigan and telling CNN there was a “pathetic irony that the former president is going to hold a rally for union members at a non-union business”.
The Reagan library is a symbolic venue for the Republican party, even though traditional Reagan-era conservatism has made way for Trump-inspired populism and isolationism in recent years.
Since the first Republican debate on August 23, Trump’s lead in national polling over DeSantis has expanded further, with 54 per cent of the party’s primary voters backing the former president, while 13.8 per cent support the Florida governor, according to the 538.com average.
Haley has since moved into third place with support from 6.3 per cent of voters, matching Ramaswamy.