(Bloomberg) -- Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley vigorously argued with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and her own state’s senator, Tim Scott, for a second strong debate performance Wednesday.
In the second Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, California, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis struggled to hang on to his status as the lead alternative to former President Donald Trump, staying silent for the first 16 minutes of the two-hour forum.
The seven contenders levied attacks on Trump, the GOP frontrunner, President Joe Biden and each other during a chaotic debate.
Trump, who again skipped the event, took more fire than he did during the first debate. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie asserted that Trump is “afraid of defending” his record, and Ramaswamy, called Biden a “hollowed out husk” of a president.
Here are key takeaways:
Haley vs Ramaswamy 2.0
Just like the first debate last month in Milwaukee, some of the most intense sparring occurred between Haley and Ramaswamy, both of whom are seeking a breakout moment.
“Honestly every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber from what you say,” Haley said, criticizing his plans to expand the use of Chinese-owned TikTok to reach younger voters. “We can’t trust you.”
Haley has been neck-and-neck with Ramaswamy in the polls in recent weeks, with each gaining on DeSantis.
“I think we would be better served as a Republican Party. if we’re not sitting here hurling personal insults and actually have a legitimate debate about policy,” Ramaswamy said.
The crisis at the US-Mexico border — which inflames the GOP base — was one of the night’s hottest topics.
Ramaswamy and Scott both endorsed the idea of ending birthright citizenship for the US-born children of undocumented immigrants, an idea popularized by Trump. DeSantis and Ramaswamy want US troops on the border to stop the flow of fentanyl as well as migrants.
Controlling immigration is a top concern for GOP voters, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll conducted last month. Migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border have escalated recently and are likely to remain high in the near term. Border security is one of the key sticking points in the internal Republican dispute over funding the government.
Tough on Beijing
DeSantis called for taking a harder line against China, accusing “elites in DC” of choosing “surrender over strength” when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party.
The Biden administration has struggled to lower tensions with China, with Republicans arguing that Democratic policy is too lenient toward Beijing.
Ramaswamy asserted that he has credibility to deal sternly with China because, as a business leader, he made the call to get out when other US businesses were expanding there. Haley criticized the federal government for sourcing pharmaceuticals from China, rather than the US.
Continuing funding for the war in Ukraine pit DeSantis and Ramaswamy, who oppose further funding for Kyiv, against the more experienced national politicians on the stage.
Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence said that degrading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army was in US interests. Haley said that “a win for Russia is a win for China,” Pence argued that allowing Russia to take parts of Ukraine would lead China to potentially invade Taiwan.
Republicans criticized Biden’s support for union leaders organizing strikes against the Big Three automakers. Ramaswamy said that workers should picket the White House instead.
Haley said Biden is partially to blame for the strikes because his signature law subsidizes electric vehicles, which include battery parts that come from China and could lead to less demand for autoworkers in the US. Biden and Trump both traveled to Michigan in the last 36 hours to address union members.
Law and Order
The candidates took advantage of openings to discuss rising crime in large US cities and smuggled fentanyl that’s fueling addictions and overdoses — two issues that played in Republicans’ favor in last year’s midterm elections.
Pence said he would push for a federal death penalty for mass shooters. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said that stricter gun laws — which are more common in Democratic-led cities — don’t work because crime is higher there. Ramaswamy and DeSantis called for deploying the US military to combat drug smuggling at the southern border.
“Those Mexican drug cartels are going to be treated like the foreign terrorist organizations they are,” DeSantis said.
Abortion, which was a key theme in the first debate, wasn’t even mentioned until the final moments. But it gave a chance for DeSantis to attack Trump, who has called Florida’s six-week abortion ban “terrible.”
Trump has also suggested that clamping down on abortion is a losing political issue in light of Democrats’ better-than-expected showing in last year’s midterms.
“I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats,” DeSantis said. “The former president, he’s missing in action tonight. He should be here explaining his comments.”
--With assistance from Hadriana Lowenkron, Michelle Jamrisko, Stephanie Lai, Christian Hall, Nancy Cook, Ryan Teague Beckwith and Gregory Korte.
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