(Bloomberg) -- Seven of the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination spent two hours hammering each other, President Joe Biden and the absent frontrunner in a debate that often felt close to chaos.
None of them managed to deliver a defining moment that could pull them decisively away from the pack, further establishing Donald Trump’s dominant position in the race.
Though the hosts struggled to keep the candidates from talking over one other, the evening generated few of the memorable moments of the last debate a month ago. Those helped weaker candidates like Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy advance in the polls in recent weeks.
The candidates — who even together get less support in national surveys than Trump does alone — had to convince voters and donors that the race isn’t already effectively over, with the former president all but certain to win the nomination.
Yet despite a few lively moments as rivals ganged up on Ramaswamy, the verbal jousting isn’t likely to shake the perception among many party insiders and voters that Trump will inevitably be the Republican nominee in next year’s election.
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“The winner tonight was Donald Trump, by not participating,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster who now opposes the former president and lamented the “chaos” onstage. “By disrespecting the process and the people, Trump actually emerges stronger.”
The event, televised on the Fox Business Network and Univision, also provided little reason to expect the roster will shrink much. Only one candidate, Asa Hutchinson, didn’t make the cut for Wednesday’s debate. All that’s good news for Trump as his rivals continue to split the votes of Republicans who oppose him instead of consolidating around a single challenger.
The debate conversation on Wednesday was dominated by issues that Republicans see as Biden’s greatest weaknesses — inflation, immigration, China, the flow of illicit drugs from Mexico — but did little to illuminate differences among the candidates.
Haley, riding an upswing in the polls after her tangles with Ramaswamy in the last debate helped bolster her profile, aimed some of the sharpest words of the evening against the 38-year-old entrepreneur.
“Every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber from what you say,” Haley told him, criticizing plans to expand the use of Chinese-owned TikTok to reach younger voters. “We can’t trust you.”
But Ramaswamy, whose polling surge after the last debate proved short-lived, tried a more generous tone than the dismissive one he deployed in the first debate.
“These are good people on this stage,” he said, appealing repeatedly to the others not to hurl insults.
Ramaswamy got the frontrunner treatment this time, drawing the first attacks within minutes, with Senator Tim Scott criticizing his past business ties to China.
Few of the others heeded his call for civility.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the most stridently anti-Trump candidate on the stage, came into the debate riding a wave of support in New Hampshire, which holds its key primary just after Iowa’s caucuses. But his national ratings remain far weaker and his repeated attacks on Trump got little traction as rivals refused to join in.
Accusing Trump of “ducking” the debates, Christie tried to create a memorable moment, saying, “you keep doing that, we won’t be calling you Donald Trump anymore, we’ll be calling you Donald Duck.”
The line, however, fell flat, as the hosts moved on quickly to their next question.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has sought to portray himself as the front-runner for the runner-up spot, delivered a competent performance but struggled as he did in the last debate to distinguish himself. He made his first comments only 16 minutes in, and then only after being prompted.
He invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan, in whose California presidential library the debate was held, in a pledge to take a “hard power” approach to China.
Going into the debate, he had tried to reassure donors of his chances. But their efforts to portray him as the only candidate who could beat Trump and Biden rang hollow as rivals like Haley saw their poll numbers jump.
DeSantis has done most of his campaigning in Iowa of late, hoping to deliver a strong result in the first race of the nominating contest and one where Trump came in second in 2016. So far, polls there show the former president’s lead is less than in the national surveys, but still 44 points beyond DeSantis.
Trump, whose poll ratings have risen as the indictments against him mounted this year, stayed away from the debate stage as he did last time. He barely mentioned his rivals in a speech Wednesday evening to workers at a non-union plant outside Detroit, the epicenter of the United Auto Workers strike against car makers.
“They’re all job candidates,” he said, belittling his rivals as only seeking roles in a future administration. “Does anybody see a VP in the group? I don’t know. They don’t have a crowd like we have.”
--With assistance from Gregory Korte.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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