Most of the Republican presidential candidates came out swinging Wednesday night – at each other.

But former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie threw the first punch at ex-President Donald Trump, who again did not deign to show up at the second Republican debate: “He should be here!” Christie said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis followed up: “Donald Trump is missing in action,” he told the audience. “He owes it to you to defend his record.”

They were absolutely right.

Still, anyone who had high hopes that candidates for the Republican presidential nomination would speak harsh truths about Trump, his animus for our democracy and his thorough unfitness to serve in the Oval Office – again – got a little more than expected, but not much.

With his poll numbers tanking and his aura as “the only candidate who can take on Trump” fading, DeSantis needed a breakthrough, a breakout moment or, given his flagging campaign, a break. And there was one moment at the end, when Fox moderators pulled a dumb move and asked candidates to vote someone in their group “off the island.” DeSantis spoke up, resolute and clear, declaring it the disrespectful stunt that it most certainly was.


In fact, Florida’s governor performed well, if not spectacularly. He seemed a bit more relatable in this second debate. There was little to lose in making clear that Emperor Trump has no clothes. And yet he and the others pretty much pulled their punches, mostly ignoring the outsized candidate who wasn’t there – and who is trouncing them in the polls.

Many questions seemed tailor-made to allow him to promote his restrictive policies, many of which have been or are being challenged in court as unconstitutional. He left that part out.

He’ll send the military after the drug cartels at the country’s southern border. He will complete “the wall,” and drug traffickers “will be treated like the foreign terrorist organizations that they are.”

Confronting crime, he said: “We back the blue. They are keeping us safe.” Then he crowed about removing two duly elected state prosecutors from their posts in Florida, followed by a vow to use the U.S. Justice Department to target “Soros-funded” prosecutors. Was that a wink to antisemites?

He said the “benefits of slavery” school curriculum controversy is a hoax promulgated by Vice President Kamala Harris, before pivoting to universal school choice. He compared himself to Ronald Reagan, saying he was standing with parents.

He went after China and its expanding economic footprint in Latin America. He mischaracterized his controversial law that, he said, bans the Communist Chinese Party from buying property in Florida. In truth, the law limits land purchases by Chinese citizens.


His best line needed no spin. In Florida, he said, “The Democratic Party lies in ruins.”

There was one fewer candidate on stage Wednesday – and that may have been a good thing. No matter who pundits and voters think “won” the debate, the candidates – and the rest of us – were the losers as backbiting, interruptions and raucous verbal wrestling drowned out individual speakers.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson didn’t meet the requirements to participate this time around, leaving the stage to DeSantis, Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

Once again, Trump did not see the need to be onstage to defend himself. And DeSantis is still at least 40 points him in some polls. It’s a huge gap. But DeSantis’ steadfast presentation Wednesday night may have nudged the needle in the right direction for him, a bit.

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