In chaotic debate, GOP hopefuls take aim at Trump and each other

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Desperate to bite into Donald Trump’s enormous lead in the polls, the former president’s top Republican rivals tore into his policies — and battered each other — as the window to stop his march to another nomination tightened.

During a chaotic two-hour debate on Wednesday, the seven challengers criticized Trump’s economic agenda and immigration policy, along with his no-show at the Reagan Presidential Library.

The candidates reserved some of their most scathing comments, however, for each other as they competed to emerge as Trump’s chief opponent while also trying to halt the former president’s momentum — no easy task with some national polls showing he’s topping 50%.

Tech executive Vivek Ramaswamy, who has showed strength in some early states on the primary calendar, was a particularly juicy target as his rivals tried to blunt his support by berating his business record, his spotty voting history and his attempt to promote himself as a unifying figure.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said she felt “a little dumber” each time she heard Ramaswamy speak. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott dubbed him a hypocrite. And former Vice President Mike Pence brought up how his company briefly expanded into the Chinese market in 2018.

“I’m glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in China,” Pence quipped. “That must have been about the same time you decided to start voting in presidential elections.”

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy drew attacks from several rivals on the state during Wednesday's GOP presidential candidates debate. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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The focus on Ramaswamy and Trump offered a surprising level of breathing room for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has failed to gain traction despite an extensive fundraising machine and repeated campaign overhauls.

Instead, DeSantis renewed a more aggressive approach toward Trump, including an opening statement that savaged his decision to skip two consecutive Republican debates — and underscored how, even absent, Trump has remained the fulcrum of the race.

“Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said to scattered applause. “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.”

And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, long one of Trump’s chief antagonists, came armed with a new nickname for the former president.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie focused much of his time during Wednesday's GOP presidential candidates debate on Donald Trump, assailing him for skipping the event, just as he did last month during the first debate. “You’re ducking these things, and let me tell you what’s going to happen,” he said. “You keep doing that, and no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.” (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

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“You’re ducking these things, and let me tell you what’s going to happen,” he said. “You keep doing that, and no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”

Trump, meanwhile, has intently portrayed his victory as inevitable and shifted his focus to President Joe Biden. While stumping to autoworkers outside Detroit, he spoke derisively about the debating Republicans as ambitious “job candidates” willing to do anything to win.

‘Breakout moment’

As they jabbed and parried one another, the verbal jousting in Southern California underscored the deepening challenges for all seven contenders.

They must simultaneously fight to frame themselves as the top threat to Trump without alienating his most loyal supporters — an enormous bloc of the Republican electorate, according to polls in Georgia and beyond.

So far, nothing they have done has undercut Trump’s commanding lead in the polls, whether through head-on criticism, policy differences or mimicking his style. Even criminal charges, including a wide-ranging indictment in Fulton County, haven’t dragged down his support.

With each non-Trump contender hungry for a “breakout moment,” it wasn’t immediately clear whether they achieved that signature campaign-shaking move. But their clashes helped sharpen their policy stances at a pivotal moment in the campaign.

Haley was in the middle of some of the most heated exchanges. After Ramaswamy defended his use of TikTok, the booming Chinese-linked social media app, Haley interjected in deeply personal terms.

“TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media assets that we can have,” she said. “And honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”

As the back-and-forth unraveled into chaotic shouting, Haley told her opponent repeatedly: “We can’t trust you.”

And Scott engaged in a battle with Haley over a gas tax in South Carolina that stoked a deeper rift between the two former allies. He accused her of wasteful spending; she shot back that he was ineffective in Congress.

As for DeSantis, he largely remained unscathed. In one exchange, Scott questioned why the governor didn’t eliminate a provision from the Florida education curriculum that suggested educators teach that slavery offered some benefits. But even that was a muted attack.

“There is not a redeeming quality in slavery,” Scott said, pivoting to an swipe against government expansions during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is seen on a screen as she speaks during the second Republican presidential debate Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. She was involved in some of the event's most heated encounters, sparring with several of the other hopefuls. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

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Each candidate probed rivals’ stances on U.S. military aid to Ukraine, a source of deep Republican division in Congress over how to respond to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the European nation and a key reason the federal government is on the brink of a shutdown.

“Just because Putin is an evil dictator does not make Ukraine good,” said Ramaswamy, who has advocated appeasing Russia by allowing it to keep much of eastern Ukraine.

Others on the stage backed more robust levels of aid to Ukraine, warning that abandoning the U.S. ally could embolden Russia and strengthen its growing alliance with China and Iran.

Pence warned that allowing Ukraine’s takeover might as well be a “greenlight to China to take Taiwan” and ignite a broader conflict. Christie also used unsparing terms.

“If we give him any of Ukraine,” Christie said of Putin, “next will be Poland.”