Republican presidential candidates spent two hours on live television late on Wednesday hurling insults and shouting at each other — often through switched-off microphones — at a presidential debate that was most notable for the continued absence of the candidate who currently leads the field, former president Donald Trump.
The seven-person field, consisting of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, ex-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, and former Vice President Mike Pence, took to the stage for a 120-minute session hosted by Fox Business Network and Univision, roughly a month after the first primary debate in Milwaukee.
Mr Trump, who most polling shows to have a commanding lead over the entire field, skipped the televised session to deliver prepared remarks to a group of non-union auto workers in Michigan.
Unlike the first debate, at which most candidates — other than Mr Christie and ex-Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson — took pains not to criticise the ex-president, Mr Trump’s absence drew at least some pushback from his next-closest rival, Mr DeSantis, and Mr Christie, who has built his long-shot candidacy around attacking the quadruply-indicted ex-president.
The ex-New Jersey governor drew a combination of laughs and groans early on in the session when he attempted to tag the ex-president with a familiar nickname while pivoting from a question about handling rising crime rates.
“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” he said, while looking directly into the camera as if he was addressing Mr Trump. “You’re not here tonight — not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record.”
“You’re ducking these things — and let me tell you what’s going to happen: If you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They’re gonna call you Donald Duck,” he added.
Mr DeSantis, once a close ally of Mr Trump, took aim at the former president when he declared him “missing in action” early on in the debate, but his appetite for criticising the GOP frontrunner appeared to wane soon after.
Instead of going after Mr Trump, the candidates chose to stick to shouting and interrupting each other — and the moderators — while trading insults over various issues, including their alleged ties to or softness on China.
Mr Ramaswamy, who has gained support in recent polls after the last debate, was the target for numerous attacks from Ms Haley, who slammed the political neophyte for his recent decision to open an account on TikTok, the video-sharing app which most of the GOP field has avoided because of its Chinese parent company.
Asked to explain the move, he replied: “I have a radical idea for the Republican Party: We need to win elections. And part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation where they are — we’re only going to ever get to declaring independence from China … if we win.”
Ms Haley, who lambasted the newcomer for his Russia-friendly Ukraine policy at the Milwaukee debate, pounced.
“This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have,” she said. “Honestly every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
The candidates also managed to draw groans with references to marital relations on the part of President Joe Biden and former vice president Mike Pence, both of whom are married to teachers.
Mr Christie made the first bizarre reference in response to a question about his state’s standardised test scores among racial minorities, choosing to attack the public school system and public school teachers’ unions.
“This public school system is no longer run by the public. It is run by the teachers unions in this country ... and 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,” he said, making a crude reference to First Lady Jill Biden, who is an English professor at a Washington, DC area community college.
While the attack on Ms Biden appeared quickly forgotten, the topic was revived a short time later by Mr Pence, who decided to speak about his relationship with an educator.
“My wife is not a member of the teachers union, but I got to admit, I have been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” he said.
After a moment of shocked silence from both the audience and the rest of the field, Fox Business Network anchor Stuart Varney interjected to declare: “Next subject!”
Though Mr Trump didn’t attend the debate and doesn’t appear inclined to attend any future sessions, his campaign appeared to be actively monitoring the proceedings.
In a statement, Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita said the programme was “as boring and inconsequential as the first debate” with “nothing ... said [that] will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump”.
“The RNC should immediately put an end to any further primary debates so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White House,” he said.
But the Super PAC supporting Mr DeSantis’ campaign, Never Back Down, appeared to have a different take, with CEO Chris Jankowski declaring the Florida governor the winner of the Wednesday evening clash.
“America is at a crossroads with a choice between a future of freedom or repeating the same mistakes of the past, and Gov. DeSantis showed tonight what inspired, principled, competent, and steadfast leadership is and people respond to leadership,” he said.