The 5 biggest moments from the second Republican debate

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — No one dominated the stage or owned a singular moment at the second Republican presidential debate Wednesday. But there were plenty of disagreements, scuffles and key points as seven GOP candidates met at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Former U.N Ambassador Nikki Haley lowered the boom on Vivek Ramaswamy and several others. Ron DeSantis came ready to criticize former President Donald Trump — and former Vice President Mike Pence was one of a few who went after the Florida governor, too. And ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Pence combined to create one of the most bizarre debate moments of all time.

Here are the defining moments of the Republican debate.

Haley says she feels ‘dumber’ for listening to Ramaswamy

“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”

That’s how Haley responded to a lengthy answer from Ramaswamy after he answered a question about his appearance with Jake Paul in a video on TikTok, a popular video sharing app that most in the GOP field have criticized over its ties to China.

Ramaswamy called the app “digital fentanyl” before becoming the first GOP candidate to join.

It wasn’t the only attack Haley leveled in a feisty night, which also saw her grab hold of the spotlight several times and tangle with DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott, among others. She criticized Scott for not accomplishing enough in a decade-plus in Washington, and she went after DeSantis over his state policy on fracking in Florida.

Her line about Ramaswamy was the most cutting by far on the night.

“TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media assets that we could have,” Haley added.

Ramaswamy tried to deescalate as Haley continued to come after him, saying the Republican Party would be “better served” if the seven candidates on stage would not attack each other. He also noted the debate’s location, pointing to Ronald Regan’s so-called 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

“Let’s have a legitimate disagreement,” he said.

The answer is a departure from Ramaswamy’s performance during the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, where he got attention for being the most contentious on stage, and levied the most attacks during the August debate.

DeSantis goes after Trump for being MIA at the debate and on abortion

DeSantis needed a big moment at his second debate, and it showed in a couple of direct hits on Donald Trump. 

In his first response of the night, DeSantis took a shot at President Joe Biden — his happy place on the presidential campaign trail. But then, without prompting, went out of his way to open up on Trump. 

“You know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump. He should be on the stage tonight,” DeSantis said, in a moment that appeared prepared. “He owes it to you to defend his record.”

It was a bold attempt at a breakthrough by DeSantis, who has in the past called on Trump to debate, but not from the national debate stage. And DeSantis circled back to the line later in the night, saying Trump should explain his remarks from a Meet the Press interview about abortion policy, including where Trump called DeSantis’ move to sign a six-week abortion ban in Florida “a terrible mistake.”

“The former president, he’s missing in action tonight, he should be here explaining his comments,” DeSantis said. “I want him to look into the eyes and tell people who were fighting this fight for a long time.”

Even allies have said DeSantis needs a big moment in California if he’s to keep his bid alive. That’s the context that saw him join Christie, a more regular Trump antagonist, in bashing the former president multiple times.

Before the debate, one DeSantis bundler said in an interview that donors had all but lost faith in the Florida governor. 

“It’s make or break for the governor. He’s listing. He’s been floundering at best since the last debate,” the bundler said. “If he struggles, if he has another average or bad performance, I think the narrative becomes hardwired that he’s dead and it’s irrecoverable.”

Scott takes aim at Ramaswamy over his past business dealings in China

One of the earliest dustups on Wednesday featured Scott, who made it entirely through the first debate without throwing a single punch and got less speaking time than most of his rivals. But on Wednesday, he came ready to engage, attacking businessman Vivek Ramaswamy for his past dealings in China.

Scott said he appreciated Ramaswamy for playing nice on stage, after the candidate had last time suggested that his rivals were all “bought and paid for.”

“I thought about that for a little while, and said, you know, I can’t imagine how you could say that knowing that you are just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden millions of dollars was a partner of yours as well.”

Ramaswamy tried to push back, but was quickly cut off. DeSantis chimed in too, sarcastically calling to return to the issues because “everyone” already knew Ramaswamy had done business in China.

Ramaswamy’s Chinese business dealings center on the former biotech executive’s company, Roivant Sciences, expanding into the Chinese market in 2018. The company “eventually wound down its operations there as the risks became apparent over time,” doing so before Ramaswamy’s presidential run, his campaign wrote in a post on his website.

“Vivek understands the threat posed by China more deeply than nearly any other politician in America,” his campaign wrote.

As for the connection to President Joe Biden’s son, there are a number of layers between Hunter Biden and Ramaswamy before making a connection, though a conservative Washington Post columnist wrote out the thread that appears to be the basis for Scott’s attack.

Pence goes after DeSantis, twice

DeSantis didn’t come in for much criticism at the first debate. But on Wednesday, Pence tried to go after DeSantis’ resume as governor, implying that he did not do enough to make sure the shooter who killed 17 students during a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. got the death penalty, and over budgets DeSantis has signed increasing state spending.

“It is unconscionable that the Parkland shooter, Ron, is actually going to spend the rest of his life in bars in Florida,” Pence said. “That’s not justice.”

Shooter Nikolas Cruz received multiple life terms for the 2018 massacre, but he did not get the death penalty because at the time Florida law required unanimity for death sentences, and the Cruz jury was not unanimous. 

DeSantis did not get a chance to respond directly to Pence, but in April, he signed legislation lowering the death penalty threshold from unanimous to supermajority, needing eight out of 12 jurors to hand down a death sentence.

“Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence,” DeSantis said.

On state spending, DeSantis’ first budget, signed in 2019, was $91.1 billion. His most recent budget, signed in June, was $117 billion, a large increase driven in large part by things like population growth.  

DeSantis, though, does also own the largest ever budget veto in Florida history when he cut $3.1 billion from the state’s 2022 budget.

Christie and Pence make it weird

In the middle of an answer about education, Christie took things in an unusual direction: “When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you could take the stranglehold away from the teachers union every day.”

And the bizarre shot at First Lady Jill Biden, a teacher, somehow came back around later in the debate — thanks to, of all people, the usually buttoned-up Mike Pence.

“By way of full disclosure, Chris,” Pence said solemnly, “you mentioned the president’s situation. My wife isn’t a member of the teachers union, but I’ve got to admit, I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years. Full disclosure.”