Republican presidential candidates sparred over topics including immigration, the Russia-Ukraine war and the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike during their debate Wednesday night in Simi Valley, California.
The hopefuls were pressed about a number of issues critical to voters ahead of the primary election, the first votes of which will be cast in January. The debate, hosted by Fox News, marked the second time candidates had the opportunity to challenge each other directly on the issues, as they jumped at the chance to differentiate themselves.
Notably, former President Donald Trump, who continues to hold a substantial lead over his challengers, opted to skip the debate, instead delivering remarks to striking UAW workers near Detroit, Michigan, in a critical general election swing state that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2016.
Despite the front-runner’s absence, the debate went on with candidates clashing over these critical issues. Here is an overview of the topics candidates discussed—and what they avoided.
Trump may have skipped the debate, but his presence in the race loomed over the other candidates. The debate comes just one day after a New York judge ruled that Trump and some of his businesses committed fraud for years. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has trailed Trump in the polls, showed a willingness to criticize Trump, describing him as “missing in action” on the debate stage and for adding to the national debt as president.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has made his critiques of the former president a key component of his campaign, also slammed Trump’s economic record, as well as his record on crime.
“You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record,” Christie said.
Still, the other candidates remained quiet about the former president as they try to avoid alienating his conservative base, who will make up a critical group in the primary elections.
The debate fell on the backdrop of a looming government shutdown, which would could have widespread affects felt by millions of Americans.
Congress has only three days to come to an agreement on a series of appropriations bills to fund the government through the next fiscal year or face a government shutdown. House Republicans remain divided over the funding package, with the right-wing flank of the party pushing for measures that would be unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has found himself in a difficult situation as he seeks to strike a deal to fund the government, but if he pushes a bipartisan deal with Democrats, conservative hardliners would likely force a motion to vacate his position.
Haley called for a change in the Congressional budget process, noting that Congress has only passed a budget on time in four times in 40 years.
But overall, the issue was not a major point in the debate, with topics such as the economy and crime taking up more time.
The UAW strike was a key sticking point for candidates, who have taken opposing views on the issue. Workers at 41 vehicle manufacturing plants have walked off the job in recent days as contract negotiations have stalled. UAW negotiators have pushed for a number of changes, including double-digit pay raises, increased paid time off and enhanced benefits amid an industry transition to electric vehicles (EVs).
Labor unions have historically leaned toward Democrats, but some conservatives such as Trump have made efforts to court those voters, who play a critical role in swingy rust belt states. Overall, candidates pointed to Biden’s economic policies as to blame for the economic conditions that are propelling them to strike.
South Carolina Tim Scott, who has been critical of the strikes, was pressed about his previous comments right of the date. He said presidents cannot “overpromise and underdeliver,” voicing opposition for four-day work weeks and “more benefits while working fewer hours.”
“That is simply not going to stand,” he said.
Ramaswamy, however, said he has “sympathy” for the workers, urging them to protest in front of the White House for Biden’s policies.
“I understand that hardship is not a choice, but victimhood is a choice. We choose to be victorious in the United States,” he said.
Abortion has become something of a sore spot for Republicans after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the case that for decades guaranteed reproductive rights across the country, last summer. Following that overturning, Republicans were dealt several electoral losses or underperformances, including in the 2022 midterm elections, as voters express outrage at abortion rights rollbacks. The issue returned to prominence after Trump urged Republicans to moderate their image on abortion to better win elections.
DeSantis, however, resisted Trump’s framing, saying he should have attended the debate to defend his remarks, pointing to his victory in Florida’s 2022 gubernatorial
“I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats. I think there are other reasons for that,” he said. “The former president, he’s missing in action tonight. He’s had a lot to say about that. He should be here explaining his comments to try to say pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Christie, meanwhile, pushed for more moderate messaging on abortion. He noted that he vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood, but also urged his fellow Republicans to be “pro-life for the entire life.”
The Russia-Ukraine war has divided the GOP field throughout the primary season, with some candidates pushing for a hands-off approach to the conflict, including support for ending aid to Ukraine. Others, however, have voiced support for ongoing aid to Kyiv as it continues to battle Russia for its sovereignty.
The candidates again voiced disagreement on the topic.
DeSantis said it is in the U.S.’s best interest to end the war, saying he would not issue a “blank check” to Ukraine and would make Europe “do what they need to do.” Scott resisted his comments, noting that 90 percent of the money is a loan, arguing that “our national vital interest is in degrading the Russian military.”
“By degrading the Russian military, we actually keep our homeland safer. We keep our troops at home. And we all understand Article 5 of NATO,” Scott said. “At the end of the day, if you want to keep American troops out of home. An attack on NATO territory would bring our troops in. By degrading Russia’s military, we reduce, if not eliminate, an attack on NATO territory.”
Candidates pledged their support for law enforcement during a discussion on crime, a major issue for Republican voters amid a rise in nonviolent crime across the country.
“It’s not just taking are of them with words, its also making sure you follow through with what you do,” Haley said, pledging to ensure police
DeSantis said he would use the U.S. military to go after cartels. Burgum called for a return to a focus on family and behavioral health, while Ramaswamy urged a “faith-based” approach to crime.
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