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Republican presidential candidates, (L-R) former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023 in Simi Valley, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The second Republican presidential debate offered an audition for many things: public attention, meme-worthy moments, a favourable reception from donors, perhaps even the future direction of U.S. conservatism.

What it did not offer was a chance to challenge the man who appears to have the party’s nomination already in his grasp.

For the second time, Donald Trump skipped the opportunity to spar with – and perhaps stumble against – other candidates, confident in polls that show he commands more support than all other candidates combined.

Nonetheless, seven other candidates sought to position themselves as deserving of the Republican nomination.

Here are seven takeaways:

1) The Gipper effect: It was no accident that the second debate took place inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a temple to the 40th president run by a foundation dedicated to upholding his legacy as a pre-eminent icon of modern U.S. conservatism. The foundation sought to host the debate little more than a stone’s throw from Mr. Reagan’s grave, hoping it might steer the party back to its bedrock – even as growing numbers of Republicans fall under the sway of Mr. Trump’s politics.

On Wednesday, some of those sought to align themselves with Mr. Reagan.

“I think we would be better served as a Republican Party if we’re not sitting here hurling personal insults and actually have a legitimate debate about policy, following Reagan’s 11th commandment in his honour,” said pharmaceutical entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. That commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, said he had revived classes on American civics and the Constitution in Florida schools, “just like president Reagan asked for in his farewell address back in 1989.”

But it was former vice-president Mike Pence who used Mr. Reagan’s “a time for choosing” speech to argue that the party would be better to return to its roots.

Analysis: Republican debate shows how far the party has moved away from Reagan’s brand of conservatism

“Because frankly, our party does face a time for choosing – whether we’re going to stand on the foundation of that conservative agenda that Ronald Reagan poured, or whether we’re going to follow the siren sound of populism,” he said.

2) The working class: The continuing United Auto Workers strike has crystallized some of the most profound issues in today’s U.S. economy. Should U.S. leadership take a page from Mr. Reagan and act harshly toward strikers? Is it reasonable for auto chief executives to earn hundreds of times what their workers make? Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina offered little sympathy to those on strike: “They want four-day French work weeks,” he said.

Others struck a more conciliatory tone, hoping to demonstrate that they are attuned to a struggling American middle class. “I don’t have a lot of patience for the union bosses,” said Mr. Ramaswamy. “I do have a lot of sympathy for the workers, however. People are going through real hardship in this country.” He and others sought political safety in affixing blame to President Joe Biden’s economic policies. “I would say go picket in front of the White House, in Washington, D.C. – that’s really where the protest needs to be,” he said.

3) Attacking the upstart: In the first GOP debate, Mr. Ramaswamy captured headlines with his combativeness, calling other candidates “bought and paid for.” It was a performance that raised his profile, and his standing in polls. This time, others came prepared to tear him down. Mr. Scott asked how Mr. Ramaswamy could question the financial support for other candidates “knowing that you were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party.” Mr. Ramaswamy’s reply: yes, he had done business in China. But unlike other companies, “we got the hell out of there.” To which Nikki Haley offered a tart retort: “Yeah, right before you ran for president.” She found more fuel for attack in Mr. Ramaswamy’s decision to join TikTok. “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she said. For his part, Mr. Ramaswamy attempted to appeal to those who might find fault with his swagger. “I’m the new guy here and so I know I have to earn your trust,” he said, adding: “I will listen. I will have the best people.”

4) The sharpest tongue on the stage: A former governor and ambassador to the United Nations, Ms. Haley wields a command of policy and international affairs that few other candidates can match. On Wednesday, she also demonstrated an ability to deliver blistering criticism. She warned that Mr. DeSantis cannot be trusted with his promises to open up additional energy supplies, given his own record in Florida. “Ron DeSantis is against fracking, he’s against drilling,” Ms. Haley said. When Mr. DeSantis sought to dismiss her criticism, Ms. Haley was insistent: “Check it. Check it.”

But she saved her most withering ripostes for Mr. Scott, the man she made a U.S. senator in 2012. At the time, Ms. Haley was governor of South Carolina, and praised Mr. Scott as someone who would spend his time in Washington “making our country proud.” On Wednesday, however, she accused him of being a participant in governments that have raised debt and failed to solve problems at the southern border. “Where have you been, Tim? Twelve years – we’ve waited and nothing has happened.”

5) Fighting the culture war: Across the U.S. – and in Canada, too – teachers, parents and political leaders have grappled with the role of schools in caring for transgender students. But the compassionate conservatism of Republicans past made no return in discussion of a profoundly difficult issue. “It is not compassionate to affirm a kid’s confusion. That is not compassion, that is cruelty,” Mr. Ramaswamy said. He offered instead bluntness: “Transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder,” he said. Some candidates have supported a national policy that would force schools to notify parents of their child’s gender preference. For schools to protect the privacy of children, Mr. Pence said, is “not bad policy. That’s crazy.” He promised a ban on gender affirmation surgery “anywhere in the country. We’ve got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology agenda, and we’ve got to empower parents.”

6) The man who stayed away (part 1): Republican candidates have struggled to respond to Mr. Trump, who is beloved by many in the party, but also stands poised to trounce his challengers. On Wednesday, some of those candidates made new efforts to undermine the front-runner. Mr. Trump “should be on this stage tonight,” Mr. DeSantis said, in one of several pointed attacks. “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.” Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has built his campaign around opposing Mr. Trump, came prepared to address the former president directly. “Donald, I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself,” Mr. Christie said, looking directly into the camera. He accused Mr. Trump of skipping the debate “because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record – you’re ducking these things.” Keep that up, Mr. Christie said, and “nobody up here is going to call you Donald Trump any more. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”

7) The man who stayed away (part 2): Since Mr. Trump skipped the first Republican debate, on Aug. 23, polls show him gaining in support while his chief rival – Mr. DeSantis – has lost ground.

So on Wednesday, Mr. Trump once again removed himself from the party’s conversation, opting instead to speak from a Michigan lectern more than 3,000 kilometres away, where he used the auto-workers strike as a way to position himself as the best candidate for the U.S. middle class.

His ire was not fellow Republicans. It was electric cars, whose manufacture can require less labour than petroleum-powered vehicles, a major issue in the UAW strike. Mandates for electric cars, Mr. Trump said, amount to “a government assassination of your jobs and of your industry.”

“Under a Trump administration, gasoline engines will be allowed – and sex changes for children will be banned,” he added. He inveighed against mandates for electric cars, calling such vehicles “damn things” that “don’t go far enough and they’re too expensive.”

And he openly solicited for the endorsement of the UAW, after the union’s president, Shawn Fain, met with President Joe Biden in Detroit this week. Mr. Fain declined to meet with Mr. Trump, who chose a non-union parts manufacturer to make his speech.

“Just get your union guys – your leaders – to endorse me,” Mr. Trump asked those gathered. “And I’ll take care of the rest.”

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