Republican debate highlights and analysis: Candidates squabble in Simi Valley

2024 hopefuls argued over education, spending and border security.

The second Republican debate of the 2024 presidential primary, taking place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, has just come to an end.

The affair was more raucous than the first debate, which took place over a month ago. Candidates interrupted one another much more regularly and several — most notably former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — have directly criticized front-runner Donald Trump, who elected not to show up tonight. The two candidates from South Carolina, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, went after one another for their records on spending, and seemingly everyone who had the chance to take a shot at entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy did so.

Read below for highlights, excerpts and key moments.

Final thoughts: A more aggressive debate than last month's

This was a weird debate, full of interruptions and crosstalk. I'm skeptical anyone actually "broke through" in some huge, game-changing way, and neither of the candidates I closely monitored — Haley or Christie — looked likely to suddenly gain 10 points in the polls next week.

But I did think Haley mostly had a strong night, building on her well-received showing in the first debate. She made the case for a more restrictive approach to border security, dinged Biden for his handling of the economy and immigration, and argued that TikTok is a huge danger to the country. That said, I do wonder if she might've rubbed some viewers the wrong way by saying she felt dumber after listening to Ramaswamy, and with her interruption-filled argument with Scott late in the debate. I say that because of how women are sometimes perceived in those sorts of situations — female candidates in the past have been tagged with misogynistic descriptors like "shrill," for instance. I look forward to seeing the post-debate 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll to get a better read on how she came across.

As for Christie, he continued to be the one person in the room unafraid of attacking Trump, doing it on a good share of his answers. On the one hand, he's got nothing to lose as the GOP candidate with the worst favorability rating among Republican voters. On the other hand, his dings did occasionally free up opportunities for other candidates to make small digs at Trump without going after the former president as aggressively as Christie did. (For instance, DeSantis took a shot at Trump for adding significantly to the national debt after Christie brought it up.) Christie probably knows that he's got no chance of winning the GOP nomination, but he may also be thinking strategically about how he can help his party avoid renominating Trump. Still, it's going to take some pretty drastic changes in the race for that outcome — Trump winning the GOP primary — to not come to pass.

Analysis by Geoffrey Skelley of 538

Final thoughts: Still a seven-way tie for second

All of the candidates on the stage face a significant mathematical challenge (or, for some of them, a problem of alchemy): How can they persuade 40-50 percent of Republican primary voters to change their minds about whom to vote for? According to our polling average, Trump is currently leading the national GOP primary polls by 40 points, 55 percent to DeSantis's 15, and the second-place candidate (DeSantis) has double or triple the support of the others.

When viewed through this lens, any single debate is not highly consequential unless a candidate can deliver an historically catchy soundbite or a major blow to Trump. But this debate, like the last one, lacked any key moment like that.

That being said, it was another good night for Haley, who demonstrated prowess in foreign policy and a desire not to be overshadowed by her loudest opponents — a key theme carried over from the last debate, where voters told us in our post-debate that they also liked her performance. This kind of slow erosion of voter sentiment is a feasible strategy in presidential primary campaigns. Take a look at the history of the 2008 Barack Obama and 1992 Bill Clinton primary races for an example. However, they typically gained momentum after surprise primary/caucus victories or campaign slip-ups by the then-leader — both of which seem unlikely from our current vantage point in the primary. Tonight could also be a breakout showing for Doug Burgum (though, polling at 1% nationally, he has a very, very long way to go).

I wrote last month that Trump is not inevitable in the primary. I still believe that (it takes a lot to convince me that something is 100% likely), but his competitors are losing ground every day. Tonight did not change that. Most of these people simply face a very, very hard math problem.

—Analysis by G. Elliott Morris of 538

Final thoughts: DeSantis gets a few punches in, but will that be enough?

It was a slow start for DeSantis, who was often absent in conversations over the first hour. But he hit his stride in the back half of the debate and had a few solid, clippable moments. He ultimately spoke the most of any candidate. And he got to throw his weight around a bit at the very end by bulldozing over moderator Dana Perino's "Survivor"-esque question about which candidate should be "voted off the island." But in the grand scheme of things, holding his own against a bunch of candidates polling in the single digits is not how DeSantis is going to win the GOP nomination. To do that, he needs to chip away at Trump's base of support. And while he took a few notable shots at the former president, chastising him for not showing up to the debate, without Trump on the debate stage it is tough for him to prosecute the case effectively even if he wants to.
-Analysis by Jacob Rubashkin, 538 contributor

Final thoughts: A more fiery Scott

I was watching Scott and Burgum tonight. I thought Scott did pretty well — he had more fire in the belly this time around, going after Ramaswamy’s and Haley’s records. He also had the third-most speaking time, per The New York Times. Burgum, on the other hand, tried to butt in early but really disappeared in the second half of the debate. He finished with the least speaking time, and I can’t imagine he made much of an impression on viewers.

But! The responsible thing to do is not to speculate about winners and losers now. We’ll have a poll from 538, The Washington Post and Ipsos tomorrow morning that provides real, hard data on what Republican voters thought.

—Analysis by Nathaniel Rakich of 538