(L-R) North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence pose on stage prior to the GOP FOX Business Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Cali., on Wednesday night. Photo by Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE
Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Seven candidates vying for the GOP's presidential nomination in the 2024 general election traded barbs and took swings at the absent former President Donald Trump during Wednesday night's second Republican primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
The moderators set the candidates up to take aim at President Joe Biden early, but instead they fired barbs at each other. South Carolinians Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott traded blows on their records, Scott took entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy to task for his business dealings in China and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seized on former President Donald Trump's absence.
Unlike in the first debate, DeSantis directly addressed the former president. As candidates discussed the ongoing United Auto Workers union strike, DeSantis said working-class Americans were struggling because of reckless federal spending, and he called on Trump and Biden to answer for it.
"Donald Trump is missing in action," DeSantis said. "He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record. He added $7 trillion in debt."
The seven candidates, including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Vice President Mike Pence, took to the stage for the second time in just over a month, facing questions from moderators Stuart Varney and Dana Perino of FOX, and Ilia Calderon of Univision. The debate was aired on FOX Business, FOX News and Univision.
Trump, who is widely seen as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, again skipped the debate. Instead, he spoke at an event at an automotive supplier in Detroit, where he indicated that he did not see a potential running mate on stage in Simi Valley.
Some candidates shared unfavorable views on unions as a whole. Scott laid the current autoworker strike at the feet of Biden, citing the 2021 COVID relief bill allocating $86 billion for pension plans to help pay union workers.
"They continue to over-promise yet under-deliver," Scott said. "One of the challenges that we have with the current negotiations is that they want four-day French workweeks but more money. They want more benefits working fewer hours."
Ramaswamy agreed, in part, but added that he has sympathy for workers who are struggling.
Pence claimed that Biden's clean energy initiative was to blame for the state of the economy, vowing to repeal it as president. Repealing provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act requires the House and Senate to pass a new law, which could then be signed by the president.
"Joe Biden's Green New Deal agenda is good for Beijing, and bad for Detroit," Pence said. "We ought to repeal the Green New Deal, get rid of the mandates and subsidies that are driving American gasoline automotive manufacturing into the graveyard."
Christie also took early opportunities to critique Trump's term as president and his absence at yet another debate. Like DeSantis, he was critical of federal spending under Trump and his signature plan to build a wall at the southern border.
"Trump failed on this as well. He built 52 miles of wall -- and said Mexico would pay for it," Christie said. "If they knew he was only going to build 52 miles they may have agreed to pay for it."
Christie said he would sign an executive order that would send National Guard support to the southern border.
Ramaswamy made several comments during the first debate about his fellow candidates being "bought and paid for." On Wednesday, Scott fired back, grilling Ramaswamy on doing business in China. The stage erupted into heavy crosstalk with DeSantis and Haley, the former South Carolina governor, also chiming in.
Ramaswamy, who said at the last debate he would pardon Trump if elected, suggested that the time has come for the Republican Party to move away from the former president.
"I think Trump was an excellent president but the America first agenda does not belong to one person," he said. "It does not belong to Trump. It does not belong to me. When we rallied behind the cry to make America great again we did not hunger for a single man."
Between all of the fireworks there was some room for policy talk. Immigration remained the main topic for the first half of the debate, with candidates honing in on the smuggling of fentanyl into the United States. Perino noted that a majority of the fentanyl smuggled into the country is brought in by U.S. citizens.
DeSantis reiterated his plan to use the military to "go after the Mexican drug cartels." He added that he would declare a national emergency for border security and treat drug cartels like foreign terrorists. Haley similarly suggested conducting special operations in Mexico to target drug cartels.
While the candidates agreed that they would focus on bolstering security at the southern border, they were far more divided on U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia. DeSantis and Ramaswamy stood on the side of pulling back support. Haley, Scott and Pence urged that supporting Ukraine's defense keeps the United States from sending its own troops to war.
"Our own country is being invaded," DeSantis said. "We've got to defend the American people before we even worry about all these other things."
Scott responded that supporting Ukraine reduces the chances that Russia stages an attack against a NATO ally such as Poland.
"Just because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's an evil dictator does not mean Ukraine is good," Ramaswamy said.
Pence quickly responded to Ramaswamy.
"You cannot let Putin have Ukraine. That is a green light to China," Pence said.
Pence proposes capital punishment for mass shooters
Pence was asked what he would do about the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, to which he proposed passing a federally "expedited death penalty."
"We're going to pass a federally expedited death penalty for anyone involved in a mass shooting so they will meet their fate in months, not years," Pence said. "It is unconscionable that the Parkland shooter, Ron, is actually going to spend the rest of his life behind bars in Florida. That's not justice. We need to mete out justice and send a message to these would-be killers that you are not going to live out your days behind bars."
The candidates were all in agreement that healthcare costs are too high and put Americans at risk of financial duress if they become ill.
Haley asked how the United States could be the best country in the world if it has the most expensive healthcare. She said she would increase transparency in healthcare costs and encourage more competition in the industry.
DeSantis was asked why Florida ranks below the national average on the rate of citizens with health insurance coverage. He attributed this to a "population boom" and a lack of welfare benefits.
"We don't have a lot of welfare benefits in Florida. We're not going to be like California and have people on government programs," he said. "Our unemployment is the lowest among any big state and we have the highest [gross domestic product]."
The third Republican primary debate will be held in Miami on Nov. 8.