SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) - Donald Trump's rivals were quick to lay into him during the second presidential debate on Wednesday, ripping the former president for skipping the event as they sought to blunt the momentum that has seen him build a commanding early lead in the Republican primary.
"He should be on this stage tonight," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was at center stage despite recent struggles to emerge as the field’s top Trump alternative. "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 we have now."
Seven GOP candidates squared off 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. Trump has continued to dominate the field, even as he faces a range of vulnerabilities, including four criminal indictments that raise the prospect of decades in prison.
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Those onstage blistered Trump for not showing up. DeSantis said President Joe Biden was "completely missing in action from leadership. And you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action."
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has built his campaign around criticizing Trump, said the former president "hides behind the walls of his golf clubs and won’t show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer."
Trump, meanwhile, 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, increasing the sense of urgency among some to more directly take him on before an audience of millions.
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.
After going on the offensive during the first debate, Ramaswamy struck a softer stance, talking about his upbringing as the candidates talked about the UAW strike.
"My father stared down layoffs at G.E. under Jack Welch’s tenure at the GE plant in Evendale, Ohio. My mom had to work overtime in nursing homes in southwest Ohio to make ends meet and pay off our home loan. So I understand that hardship is not a choice. But victimhood is a choice."
Former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott were looking for breakout moments, was was North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum who repeatedly jumped in to answer questions he wasn't asked to get himself more screen time in the debate's early going.
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."