Indian American Nikki Haley again stole the show as seven Republican presidential aspirants met for their second debate Wednesday evening under the looming shadow of absentee frontrunner Donald Trump.
Skipping the debate again at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the former President leading in both national and early-state polls by huge margins instead went to Michigan to hold a rally with automotive workers.
Haley, the first Indian American to get a cabinet rank as US ambassador to the UN under Trump, had another good night with most observers declaring her the outright winner.
So much so that after Wednesdayâ€™s debate, the Trump campaign came out to attack Haley, former South Carolina governor instead of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, still a distant second in the polls.
In an email sent at the conclusion of the debate, Trumpâ€™s campaign singled out Haley, comparing her to Hillary Clinton, calling her â€œweak on immigrationâ€ and suggesting she had been disloyal by pointing to statements she made in 2021 about not running for president in 2024 if Trump did.
Standing to the right of DeSantis, Haley again made a convincing case for a non-Trump, not-quite-anti-Trump, sort-of-post-Trump nominee.
Taking the gloves off, she did not even spare fellow Indian American entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy telling him in one sharp exchange, Â â€œHonestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.â€
â€œThis is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps we could have … We can’t trust you. We can’t trust you. We can’t have TikTok in our kids’ lives,â€ Haley said.
Ramaswamy defended himself for opening a TikTok account, saying if Republicans wanted to win the 2024 polls, they need to reach out to â€œthe next generation of young Americans where they are.â€
The Democrats, he said, were “running rampant, reaching the next generation 3 to 1” and he is the only Republican talking about reaching young people.
â€œI think we will be better served as a Republican party if we are not sitting here hurling personal insults and actually have a legitimate debate about policy following Reaganâ€™s example and in his honor,â€ Ramaswamy said in response to Haley’s attack.
Haley also sparred aggressively with Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian whom she had as governor nominated to fill an open Senate seat, and DeSantis, who seemed unprepared for the intensity of her attacks.
As Scott accused her of backing a gas tax as South Carolina governor and upgrading the curtains in her office as United Nations ambassador, Haley responded, â€œBring it, Tim.â€
Tim Scott also went after Ramaswamy for doing business with China earlier in his career. Ramaswamy noted that he had stopped his China dealings, but that opened him up for a swipe by Pence, who said he must have pulled out of China in 2018 – at about the same time, he quipped, that the 38-year-old candidate started voting in presidential elections.
During a chaotic two-hour debate, the candidates often tried to do it at once, talking over each other, the moderators, and sometimes themselves.
“Thank you for talking while I’m interrupting,” Vivek Ramaswamy told Tim Scott snidely in what was a telling Freudian slip.
Other candidates too took a couple of swipes against absentee Trump.
â€œDonald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record,â€ said DeSantis.
â€œYou’re not here tonight because you’re afraid to defend your record. You’re ducking … We’re going to call you Donald Duck,â€ said former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Following the second debate, the Haley Campaign said she didn’t shy away from pointing out her opponents’ dangerous policies, including Ramaswamy’s support for TikTok, Trump’s failure to prioritize the larger Chinese threat, and Ron DeSantis’ ban on fracking and offshore drilling.
The popularity of both the Indian-American candidates has been on the rise since the first debate. Haley and Ramaswamy have been making campaign stops in the early primary and caucus states.
The two have also released their economic and energy policies. While Trump remains the forerunner for the Republican nomination with over 50% support, Ramaswamy is at 13% followed closely by Haley at 12%.