Seven presidential hopefuls faced off Wednesday for the second Republican primary debate — with frontrunner Donald Trump bidding to steal the headlines despite spurning the showdown.
Trump, 77, announced in August he would be skipping the debates, usually a staple of presidential nomination contests, because he has no need to waste time on his distant challengers.
Instead, the populist real estate tycoon, who is battling multiple criminal cases ranging from mishandling state secrets to conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, met auto industry workers in the battleground state of Michigan.
The latest legal blow to Trump came Tuesday when a New York judge ruled that he and sons Eric and Don Jr committed fraud by inflating the value of Trump Organization assets for years.
At his event in Michigan, however, the former reality TV star attempted to boost his blue-collar message while dismantling the pro-worker reputation cultivated by President Joe Biden, who visited striking union members in the state on Tuesday.
“Joe Biden claims to be the most pro-union president in history. Nonsense. Think of it. His entire career has been an act of economic treason and union destruction,” Trump said.
Seven candidates achieved the Republican National Committee’s qualifying criteria to appear at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley, California, for the second debate.
Trump’s chief rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was facing off against political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, and pugnacious former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum rounded out the field for the clash moderated by Fox Business and Univision.
The event kicked off with a question about handling the autoworkers’ strike, and while Ramaswamy voiced sympathy with the workers, Scott made clear the priority was immigration rather than labor.
“Joe Biden should not be on the picket line. He should be on the southern border, working to close our southern border, because it is unsafe, wide open and insecure,” Scott said.
Trump — who was found liable for sexual abuse in May, but denies wrongdoing in all his criminal and civil cases — scoffs at his challengers.
“You know, they’re wasting a lot of time with these ridiculous debates that nobody’s watching,” Trump told supporters at a campaign event in South Carolina on Monday. “Their last debate was the lowest-rated debate in history.”
Gerard Filitti, senior counsel at the Lawfare Project, a political and civil rights organization advocating for the Jewish community, says Trump’s strategy is intended to send the message that he is the “inevitable” choice to be the Republican standard-bearer in 2024.
“He has nothing to gain by debating, and everything to lose if confronted with questions about his past conduct, the multiple criminal indictments he is facing regarding the 2020 election, and even his lack of clarity or consistency on some issues like abortion,” Filitti told AFP.
Trump’s legal troubles have done little to dent his lead, with 59 percent of Republican primary voters in a new NBC News poll making him their top choice, with DeSantis a distant runner-up on 16 percent.
The Trump campaign released a statement ahead of the debate mocking DeSantis and predicting he would “flail around like a bobble head on stage while trying to gaslight voters about President Trump’s record.”
The debate comes with Haley in particular enjoying a moment in the sun, with recent polling indicating she would likely fare best of all the candidates, including Trump, in a head-to-head with Biden.
“Tonight is a huge milestone that will help us build a surge of momentum and set the tone for the upcoming months on the campaign trail,” she told supporters in a mail-out ahead of the showdown.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)