SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Republicans met for their second presidential debate on Wednesday as Donald Trump’s top rivals seek to blunt the momentum of the former president, who is so confident of cruising through the party’s primary that he again won’t share a stage with them.
Seven GOP candidates are at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California for an event hosted by Fox Business Network. Trump was in Michigan, delivering a prime-time speech that continued through the start of the debate, attempting to capitalize on the Auto Workers Union strike and trying to appeal to rank-and-file union members in a key state that could help decide the general election.
The debate comes at a critical moment in the GOP campaign, with less than four months before the Iowa caucuses formally launch the presidential nomination process. For now, Trump is dominating the field, even as he faces a range of vulnerabilities, including four criminal indictments that raise the prospect of decades in prison.
Trump made only a passing mention of the debate during his speech, drawing boos when he said, “We’re competing with the job candidates” and poking fun at them for not drawing crowds as large as his. The former president’s competitors are running out of time to dent his lead, which is building a sense of urgency among some to more directly take on the former president before an audience of millions.
“This is not a nomination that’s going to fall in your lap. You have to go and beat the other candidates and one of those happens to be Donald Trump,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “This debate, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not folks realize that the sand is going through the hourglass pretty quickly right now.”
Even hours before the event began in Simi Valley, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the first group of supporters for any campaign to arrive waved Trump flags and put up a banner reading “Trump, our last hope for America and the world.”
That underscored the former president’s continued influence at a debate he’s not attending. Trump also skipped the first debate last month in Milwaukee, where the participants laid into one another while mostly avoiding attacks on Trump. Nearly 13 million people tuned in anyway.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, drew larger crowds and new interest after her first debate performance in which she attacked entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy on foreign policy and emphasized being the only woman in the field.
Her team has raised expectations even higher before Wednesday night, telling donors in a recent pitch that they are “ready to capitalize on the momentum after Nikki walks off stage.”
“As more voters across America tune in to watch the second debate, it’ll be a great opportunity to bring even more supporters into the fold,” Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, wrote in her email.
Also hoping for a big night is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will be at center stage despite recent struggles to emerge as the field’s top Trump alternative. His campaign announced that he also saw a jump in fundraising after the first debate, but a strong performance on Wednesday will likely be necessary to replicate that.
“It’s too late for just a fine performance,” said Christine Matthews, a national Republican pollster. “DeSantis has gone from leading alternative to Trump to just one of the pack of challengers and he will be under pressure to perform.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Ramaswamy are similarly looking for breakout moments. Ramaswamy seized the spotlight frequently in Milwaukee, but was criticized by many candidates who sought to expose his lack of political experience.
Also onstage will be North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, who has built his White House bid around slamming Trump.
Another Trump critic, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, failed to qualify after making the first debate. He too headed to suburban Detroit, saying, “Donald Trump is here in Detroit tonight because he wants to avoid a debate.”
The site is symbolic given that Reagan has long been a Republican icon whose words and key moments still shape GOP politics today. But in addition to fighting with the Reagan library’s leaders, Trump has reshaped the party and pushed it away from Reagan.
President Joe Biden was just up the coast in Northern California for fundraisers. His reelection campaign has mounted multiple days of counterprogramming in California, seeking to label Trump and followers of his Make America Great Again movement as too extreme. The state’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is a vocal public face of Biden’s reelection campaign and called the debate little more than entertainment for political junkies, given Trump’s sizable primary lead.
“This is a sideshow, by any objective measure,” Newsom told The Associated Press. “You’ve got a guy who’s the de facto incumbent.”
The debate, Newsom added, is “JV, XFL stuff.”
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.