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Absent Trump Emerges Victorious In Second GOP Debate

Strategic absence dominates second GOP debate, puts rivals to the test.

Republican presidential candidates (L-R), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence are introduced during the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
  • Donald Trump strategically skipped the GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to highlight the lack of seriousness among other candidates
  • Some candidates, like Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, struggled to distinguish themselves from Trump
  • Trump's absence emphasized his presidential record and accomplishments, making him appear as a more substantial candidate compared to his opponents

Former President Donald Trump, who cleverly missed the second GOP debate hosted by Fox and Univision at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday night, was decidedly the debate winner.

Trump is leading his rivals by over 50 points, so there was no strategic reason for him to appear and be attacked by his desperate opponents. Even without him on the stage, Chris Christie (who delivered a practiced line in calling him Donald Duck) and Ron DeSantis ridiculed him for not competing and insulting GOP voters. Christie charged that Trump was afraid. Both charges were nonsense.

Trump deliberately missed the debate because he wanted Americans to see how hopelessly unserious and unprepared those on the stage were to become the 47th president. 

Sen. Tim Scott repeatedly said America was a great country but picked a fight with Nikki Haley about $50,000 curtains at the United Nations. Scott also noted that the $74 billion already spent in Ukraine was a loan that NATO would return to the United States. And to a question about diversity, he said that he hired a Hispanic lady to be his Senate office chief of staff. [Senate offices have staffs of about 20 -60 people].

Mike Pence was his usual slow self, drawling away with canned answers that spoke highly of "we in the Trump administration" whenever there was a policy question posed, but struggled to explain why Americans should vote for him when the real deal - Trump - is leading the pack. Pence took credit for everything the Trump administration did well - tax cuts, remain-in-Mexico policy, energy independence - but forgot that these were not his policy priorities. Seeing him refer to Trump as his former running mate was amusing. Mr. Pence, you didn't pick Trump as your running mate; he chose you. 

The all-knowing Nikki Haley refused to admit that she signed off on a 10-cent gas tax increase in South Carolina. When Sen. Scott invited viewers to check out YouTube clips to fact-check, she relented, conceding that she did sign the increase in return for higher income tax revenues.  

Several candidates began repeating the latest Uniparty mantra to justify funding Ukraine: It is in America's national security interest to degrade Russia's military at a fraction of the Pentagon budget when no American lives are at stake. 

Whatever happened to the original policy goal of supporting Ukraine because it was defending its sovereignty and Russia had violated the international order by invading a nation? Changing goalposts in wars and scope creep are quintessential American problems dating back to the Korean War. No one on stage ridiculed Biden for not seeking Congressional approval for the war, which would have clearly laid out why America was involved in Ukraine to begin with.

DeSantis and Christie became tiring with the same old line: "I did it in Florida (New Jersey), and I will do it again as President." No, you can't. Washington is a totally different beast from Tallahassee or Trenton, with powerful Congressional leaders, the media, and lobbyists thwarting your every move. It was remarkable that Trump achieved so much during his term.

The star of the previous debate in Milwaukee, Vivek Ramaswamy, underperformed. His lines were too practiced and plastic. He and Scott annoyingly got into a tug of war when neither could be heard. The moderators did nothing to control the situation.

The moderators appeared clueless throughout the 2-hour debate. Ilia Calderon, the Colombian-born Univision anchor, speaking with such a pronounced Spanish accent that people had trouble understanding her, decided to focus on issues important to her but not GOP voters (LGBTQ, Black History, DACA, and birthright citizenship). 

Dana Perino was evidently chosen because, unlike other Fox personalities, she had stayed clear of either praising Trump or criticizing him. But she failed to impress as a moderator. Ukraine didn't make it to her rounds of questioning until well after the halfway point. She failed to correct some candidates when they repeatedly asserted that NATO countries would be next on Putin's list. 

Stuart Varney was there, but he played no role in managing the debate better. There were no meaningful questions about the economy - taxes, deficits, debt clock, trade deficits with China- although he was presumably brought in as a business reporter. 

Trump won because his absence reminded voters again that he actually was president. He won both blue and red states in 2016 and beat an established, much stronger candidate in, Hillary Clinton. Trump oversaw a prosperous America when inflation was contained at about 2%; the economy was booming with the highest employment rates for Hispanics and Black Americans in over 60 years. America was energy independent, not in any new wars, and the Southern Border was far more secure than it is today. 

Trump has a record to run on and compare it with Joe Biden's disastrous record. The debaters on the Simi Valley stage were all talk. 

For voters, actions count more than talk. So, Trump won the debate.

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