Trump, crime and bad jokes: key takeaways from the second Republican debate

From a foray into Mike Pence’s sex life and extreme yet vague proposals on gun control, candidates competed for an edge

The second Republican presidential debate – once again without frontrunner Donald Trump – took place on Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Amid the squabble of the seven candidates, all of whom trail Trump significantly, Americans were left to parse which direction the Republican party plans to take in 2024. Trump, meanwhile, gave a speech in Michigan, where autoworkers have been striking for better work conditions and pay.

Here are the main takeaways from the two-hour debate that aired on Fox Business.

The candidates finally called out Trump for his absence, and spoke out against him more often
Unlike in the first debate, candidates Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis directly commented on Trump’s absence multiple times.

“He should be in this room to answer those questions for the people you talked about who are suffering,” Christie said.

Later, he added: “And you’re not here tonight. Not because of polls, and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen. You keep doing that, no one up here is gonna call you Donald Trump any more. We’re gonna call you Donald Duck.”

DeSantis, once seen as Trump’s main rival, also took on his fellow Florida man. “He should be on this stage tonight,” DeSantis said. “He owes it to you to defend his record.”

The jokes were worse than usual
From Chris Christie’s highly practiced Donald Duck quip to ultra-conservative Mike Pence’s weird foray into his sex life, the audience was mostly left to uncomfortably chuckle.

Republicans continue to politicize crime to avoid talking about solutions to issues like gun violence, immigration and drug overdoses
The party has tried to hold up crime rates – which have continued to decline after the pandemic spike – to criticize attempts at police reform or gun control.

DeSantis touted his ousting of “progressive prosecutors” who he claimed were making Floridians unsafe when they investigated police misconduct, while Nikki Haley tried to connect issues at the southern border with seemingly unrelated looting in Philadelphia this week.

When faced with a question about the prevalence of school shootings in the US, Mike Pence said the “expedited” death penalty for the shooters would prevent more shootings.

Children were at the center of multiple questions about daycare, education and transgender rights, but it mostly devolved into culture wars
Building on the heated discussions about “parents’ rights” and school choice that escalated during the pandemic, the candidates doubled down on their cultural agendas.

DeSantis refused to backtrack on the part of his state curriculum that says enslaved people benefited from enslavement and touted Florida’s education record. Meanwhile, students and parents in Florida are organizing against the ongoing book bans and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that Republicans have brought to endless school meetings.

Pence said he would enact a national ban on transgender care when asked about violence against the LGBTQ+ community. Vivek Ramaswamy said a return to faith would motivate the youth, and claimed “transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder”. (Major health organizations disagree.)

Haley addressed the issue directly. “We have to acknowledge the fact that 67% of our eighth-graders are not proficient in reading or math,” she said. “And recently they came out and said our 12- and 13-year-olds are scoring at the lowest levels they have been scoring in reading and math in decades.”

Abortion was almost overlooked
Unlike in the previous debate, abortion took a backseat, despite the fact that Republicans have lost several recent elections to this issue after the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade last year.

DeSantis denied that abortion played a large role in those elections and implied Trump was turning on pro-life voters. Christie, however, talked about the need for Republicans to talk about the issue in a way that didn’t downplay the health of women caught in difficult circumstances.

The Trump campaign may have revealed in an email blast who they feel most threatened by
While Trump, speaking in Michigan, joked about there being no one at the debate fit for even the vice-presidency, a campaign email suggested otherwise. The email, with the subject “The Real Nikki Haley”, outlined her past quotes and positions to make her look hypocritical and weak.

A recent poll showed that if Haley were the Republican nominee, she might beat Biden next year.