Candidates stand at their podiums during a Republican presidential primary...

Candidates stand at their podiums during a Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill

WASHINGTON — Seven Republican presidential hopefuls on Wednesday night sought to do in the second GOP primary debate what they couldn’t do in the first one last month — erode Donald Trump’s double-digit polling lead.

Only two candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — took direct aim at Trump for skipping the second consecutive debate, while the others mostly directed their attacks at President Joe Biden and one another.

At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the candidates tried to position themselves as tough on immigration and strict on fiscal policies with the federal government days away from a potential shutdown. The others on stage were tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Vice President Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Former U.S. Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) said it was a “critical” debate for the candidates to try to narrow the field in an attempt to overtake Trump, who faces criminal charges in four separate jurisdictions. The former president, who was campaigning in Michigan Wednesday, has denied wrongdoing.

“If they keep having seven people up there, it's just going to be one boring night after another,” King said of the potential for waning interest in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses in January.

Anthony Fowler, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, said the challenge for GOP candidates is convincing voters they can surpass Trump and win.

“One general problem with a primary is that there are so many candidates that not only do you have to get voters to like you, but you also have to get voters to think that you're viable because nobody wants to vote for a candidate that has no chance to win,” Fowler said. “So you have to convince voters that not only are you an appealing candidate, but you're also appealing to lots of other people and you actually have a viable chance of winning.”

Here are some takeaways from the second debate:

Taking on Trump

DeSantis, who has been running second to Trump in most national polls, wasted little time going after Trump, accusing him in the first 15 minutes of being “missing in action.” It was a reversal from the first debate in August, when DeSantis refrained from direct criticism.

“He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt, that set the stage for the inflation that we have now,” DeSantis said Wednesday.

Christie, a longtime Trump critic, dubbed the former president “Donald Duck” for “ducking these things.”

“Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” Christie said, speaking directly to the camera. “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.”

In the final moments, when the candidates were asked who from the pack they would select to leave, DeSantis refused to answer. Christie said Trump should go, describing him as a polarizing figure.

“This guy has not only divided our party, he has divided our families,” Christie said.

Trump, speaking at an event with automotive union workers before the debate, shrugged off the field of challengers, describing them as simply contenders looking to be his running mate.

"They're all job candidates," Trump said. "Does anybody see any VP in the group? I don't think so."

Border security

The candidates sought to position themselves as having the strongest plan to secure the nation’s southern border, an issue that boosted Trump during his first run in 2016.

Ramaswamy and DeSantis called for militarizing the southern border, and Pence broadly sought to attach himself to the “build the wall” policies of the Trump administration.

“We have to secure a broken border … I know how to do it, and we will do it again,” Pence said, without offering more details.

Haley provided one of the more specific responses, saying she would add 25,000 additional Border Patrol and ICE agents to the federal ranks.

Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said: “What we have to do is treat this like the law enforcement problem that it is.”

South Carolina showdown

Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who saw a slight polling bump after the first debate, fielded some barbs Wednesday night from Scott, whom she appointed in 2012 to fill the state's open Senate seat.

“Bring it, Tim,” Haley told him after he questioned her record during her time as governor and U.N. Ambassador.

Scott sought to tie Haley to the purchase of $50,000 worth of curtains in the ambassador’s residence when she held the post. Haley shot back that the purchase was made by the Obama administration before she took office.

“You are scrapping,” said Haley.

Moments after the tangle, the Trump campaign sent an email targeting Haley. It linked to an April 2021 interview in which she told a reporter “I would not run if President Trump ran.”

Scott also took a more aggressive posture on Wednesday compared with the first debate where he struggled for a breakout moment.

He took aim at Ramaswamy, raising questions about the businessman’s ties to Chinese-owned companies.

The Washington Post recently reported that Ramaswamy partnered with “a state-owned Chinese investment firm, to form a company called Sinovant,” focused on biopharmaceuticals.

Ramaswamy brushed off Scott’s line of attack as “nonsense."

Haley later criticized Ramaswamy, much as she did in the first debate, telling him after an exchange on his use of the social media platform TikTok: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”

Ramaswamy, who spent much of the first debate attacking his challengers, responded that the group "would be better served as a Republican Party if we're not sitting here hurling personal insults."

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