Frontrunner Trump's absence at 'hot mess' 2nd GOP debate leaves Haley, DeSantis and Scott to spar for 2nd place

A chaotic evening did little to pluck a Trump alternative from a crowded field

Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations, during the Republican primary presidential debate on Wednesday.
Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations, during the Republican primary presidential debate at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The second debate of the Republican presidential primary took place on Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. As with the first debate, frontrunner Donald Trump was absent, giving the event an undercard feel. Leading in both national and early-state polls by margins that seem insurmountable, the former and potentially future president instead went to Michigan to hold a rally with automotive workers.

The contentious and at times chaotic nature of the debate did none of the candidates who showed up any favors. “All of this, it seems to me, helps Donald Trump,” David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said on CNN in a postdebate panel. “Because rather than creating clarity, it creates more of a muddle for voters.”

Below, find our top 5 takeaways from the second debate.

Read more on Yahoo News: Winners and losers from the 2nd Republican debate, via BBC News

1. ‘A hot mess’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy trade barbs during the debate on Wednesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy trade barbs Wednesday night. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Perhaps the most telling moment of the debate was when moderator and Fox News anchor Dana Perino told North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum to stop interrupting others — or face punishment.

“Sir, we will have to cut your mic and I don’t want to do that,” she chided him. “I don’t.”

To be fair, Burgum was only following the lead of the other candidates on the stage, who were constantly shouting and speaking over each other, turning the debate stage into a high school cafeteria.

“This is a hot mess,” GOP consultant Liam Donovan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The squabbling seemed to vindicate Trump’s decision to stay away from Southern California.

Read more on Yahoo News: Tim Scott and Nikki Haley argue about curtains in GOP debate, via The Independent

2. Another good night for Haley

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walks behind Nikki Haley during a break in the debate.
DeSantis walks behind Haley during a break in the debate. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

For the last nine months, Trump has relentlessly attacked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was an establishment favorite after decisively winning reelection last year. But after Wednesday’s debate, the Trump campaign attacked another candidate: Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (during the Trump administration).

In an email sent at the conclusion of the debate, Trump’s campaign singled out Haley, comparing her to Hillary Clinton, calling her “weak on immigration” and suggesting she had been disloyal by pointing to statements she made in 2021 about not running for president in 2024 if Trump did.

It was a sign that, for a second straight debate, Haley had made the most convincing case for a non-Trump, not-quite-anti-Trump, sort-of-post-Trump nominee. In one memorable exchange, she leveled entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy with a shattering uppercut: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she said about his views on the social media app TikTok. She also sparred aggressively with Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian, and DeSantis, who seemed unprepared for the intensity of her attacks.

Read more on Yahoo News: Nikki Haley is only GOP presidential candidate to decisively beat Joe Biden in new poll, via NextShark

3. DeSantis does well, but probably not well enough

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis onstage at the second Republican presidential debate.
With his poll numbers dropping and donors fleeing, DeSantis did little to make the case that he is the best candidate to take on Donald Trump. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

DeSantis was once compared by pundits to Reagan, the iconic conservative president in whose library Wednesday night’s debate took place.

Obviously aware that his unwillingness to directly take on Trump was hampering his prospects by calling into question his pugnacious brand, DeSantis took on the frontrunner, and his political mentor, directly.

“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record,” DeSantis said. For the most part, he refused to recede into the background, as he did during the first debate. However, with his poll numbers dropping and donors fleeing, he did little to make the case that he is the best candidate to take on Trump.

Haley’s ascent only added to his travails.

Read more on Yahoo News: How DeSantis’s early missteps hobbled his U.S. presidential bid, via Reuters

4. Scott awakens

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina at the debate.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has been a favorite of many Capitol Hill conservatives. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

When he first announced his run for the presidency, Scott — the lone Black Republican in the U.S. Senate — engendered instant support from senior Capitol Hill conservatives, who compared him to Reagan. But after several months of campaigning, he had failed to attract voters’ excitement.

Wednesday saw Scott show what, exactly, makes him a favorite of so many conservatives. “I have been discriminated against, but America is not a racist country,” he said, offering a fundamentally optimistic vision of the state of the nation. He also suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s social programs, known collectively as the Great Society, did more to harm the Black family than chattel slavery — a potentially controversial argument that may nevertheless find traction on the right, especially at a time of backlash to the racial reckoning that began in 2020.

“Tim Scott just delivered exactly what his supporters have been waiting for,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote on the X platform. “Rejecting American racism in favor of American Exceptionalism is one of the best lines of the entire campaign, and it was delivered with the passion and emotion that make it memorable.”

Read more on Yahoo News: Tim Scott is the top Black Republican in the GOP presidential primary. Here's how he discusses race, via the Associated Press

5. But nothing really changed

Republican presidential candidates stand at their podiums onstage during the second Republican presidential primary debate.
The Republican presidential candidates at the second Republican presidential primary debate. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

After two hours of shouting, arguing and pontification, what ultimately changed about the dynamics of the GOP primary race?

Absolutely nothing.

Trump remains the prohibitive favorite to secure the party’s presidential nomination, while Haley, DeSantis, Ramaswamy and others continued to compete for voters who are firmly or somewhat against Trump. Their rancorous performance on Wednesday night gave their respective supporters some of the fuel they needed, which means the field will continue to be crowded and sharply divided. And that, ultimately, only helps Trump.

Simply by not showing up, he may have won again.

Read more on Yahoo News: Goading Trump, hating Vivek, fighting everyone: Key takeaways from the second GOP debate, via the Independent