They yelled at each other. They yelled over each other. And they tried, desperately, to create a viral moment.
But the GOP candidates onstage Wednesday night did little to threaten Donald Trump’s commanding lead over the rest of the field—and they will likely find themselves in a familiar position after the second debate: trailing Trump by at least 30 points.
Even when candidates went after the former president directly, seemingly trying to goad him to attend the third debate, they failed to land any punch that could resonate for a GOP primary electorate that seems dead-set on nominating Trump for the third straight election.
The biggest moment may have also been the cringiest—when Chris Christie made a direct appeal to Trump, staring straight into the camera, and taunted him.
“Donald, I know you’re watching,” Christie said. “You can’t help yourself.”
The former New Jersey governor accused Trump of being afraid to join his fellow candidates on stage and defend his record. “You keep doing that, nobody up here's gonna keep calling you Donald Trump; we're gonna call you Donald Duck,” Christie said.
Earlier in the debate, Christie and Ron DeSantis made conscious decisions to go after Trump, specifically targeting his decision to skip the event.
When asked about the impending government shutdown, Christie said the former president had a responsibility to show up and be held to account over his administration’s budget-busting policies.
“Let’s be honest about this with the voters: During the Trump administration, they added $7 trillion to the national debt, and now the Biden administration has put another $5 trillion on and counting,” Christie said.
“We don’t get any answers, because Joe Biden hides… and Donald Trump 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. He put $7 trillion on the debt, he should be here in this room to answer those questions.”
Minutes later, DeSantis took a similar tack, criticizing both Biden and Trump over the situation in Washington.
“You know who else is missing in action?” DeSantis said. “Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be here on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.”
DeSantis repurposed the same lines again later in the debate, saying Trump should be there to explain his recent comments calling a six-week abortion ban a “terrible idea.”
Such criticism of Trump may seem relatively meager, but it was a fresh sight on the biggest stage of the Republican primary.
In the first debate in August, the candidates onstage largely shied away from criticizing Trump—or even really talking about him at all—until they were prompted to, roughly an hour into the debate.
Even then, the candidates considered to be the strongest Trump challengers, like DeSantis, could not manage to lay out much of any rationale as to why the former president should no longer be the party’s standard-bearer.
With recent primary polls serving as proof that their strategy failed, the candidates desperate to remain competitive in the race clearly decided to adjust.
For Christie, who has been perhaps Trump’s most prominent critic in this primary, the jabs were not unexpected; he attacked his former ally in the first debate, too.
But for DeSantis, the shift was notable. Under pressure to actually take aim at Trump, whose team has sought to ruthlessly humiliate him, the Florida governor may have begun to satisfy critics who believe his timidity toward Trump has cost him the primary.
Still, the other candidates mostly avoided going after Trump—and instead spent far more time going after each other.
Mike Pence tried to contrast his record as a congressman with DeSantis’, with the former vice president noting that he actually achieved budget cuts when he was in Congress while DeSantis just talked tough about cuts and later increased the Florida budget when he was governor.
“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” Haley said to Ramaswamy.
Later, when the candidates got into the United States sending aid to Ukraine, Haley attacked Ramaswamy again, as soon as he began arguing that Ukraine was anti-democratic and not worthy of support. Talking over him, the pro-Ukraine Haley began repeating the line: “A win for Russia is a win for China.”
“Oh, I forgot, you like China,” Haley said to Ramaswamy.
Later, on energy policy, Haley continued her aggressive swipes, going after DeSantis on his record—the first time the two non-Trump polling leaders have really tangled on a debate stage.
Hitting the Florida governor for his repeated declarations of what he’d do on “day one” of his presidency, Haley said that where he gets into “trouble” is on “day two.”
"You banned fracking,” she said. “You banned offshore drilling. You did it on federal lands."
A flustered DeSantis stammered, “She’s just totally wrong.”
As usual, Tim Scott—the South Carolina senator running on positive vibes—seemed to be the candidate most resistant to taking real shots at anyone.
At one point, the moderators teed up Scott to criticize Haley, who appointed him to the U.S. Senate seat when she was governor of South Carolina, by asking him why he deserves the promotion to president over her.
In a winding and evasive answer, Scott didn’t mention Haley at all, instead dispensing generic points about the economy and the national debt.
Given the chance to tell voters why she deserved the promotion over Scott, Haley didn’t hesitate to go for the jugular, asking why he hadn’t improved the economy during his service in the Senate.
“Twelve years. Where have you been?” Haley asked. “Where have you been, Tim?"
Minutes later, Scott revived the argument, launching the closest thing to an attack on Haley that we've seen from him over her position on a state gas tax and resurfacing reports that she spent $50,000 in taxpayer funds on curtains for the U.N. ambassador’s residence when she served in the position under Trump. (The New York Times ultimately corrected its initial story on the episode.)
But Scott couldn’t quite stick the attack’s landing, with Haley interrupting him halfway through with a taunt: “Bring it, Tim.”
The candidates did seem to come together at the end of the debate, when they refused to answer moderator Dana Perino’s prompt for each of them to pick one competitor to vote “off the island.”
Christie did answer the question—but he did not pick someone who was on stage with him.
Instead, he blamed Trump for causing such division in America.
“He needs to be voted off the island,” said Christie, “and he needs to be taken out of this process.”