On Wednesday evening, September 27, seven conservative candidates for the White House faced off live on television for the second Republican Party debate. With their share of striking or unusual statements.

In the shadow of Air Force One, and with the image of Ronald Reagan all around them, Republican presidential hopefuls gathered Wednesday to try to claim the mantle of one touchstone former president — and steal the spotlight from another.

The Ronald Reagan Library’s presidential debate is a rite of passage for Republicans who want to convince their party they can capture the White House.

With sweeping vistas of beautiful California countryside, its paeans to American greatness and its rich evocations of history — there’s a chunk of the Berlin Wall here — the library is Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” in miniature.

Since his barnstorming reelection win in 1984, taking almost the entire Electoral College and bagging a huge majority in the popular vote, Reagan has been the yardstick against which the Republican Party measures its candidates.

Trump in sight

But the six men and one woman on stage in Simi Valley, California, had a different former president in their sights: Donald Trump, who is so far ahead in the polls that he didn’t even bother to show.

And it wasn’t long before they started taking their shots at him, with Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis using their first answers to lambast the former reality TV star for skipping the event.

“Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis boomed.

“He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where he added $7.8 trillion to the debt that set the stage for the inflation that we have.”

Christie was even more pointed.

“Donald, I know you’re watching, you can’t help yourself,” he said. “You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record.

“You’re ducking these things, and let me tell you what’s going to happen…. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”

Consensus on security issues

Sometimes they turned on each other — Tim Scott launched a slightly baffling broadside against Nikki Hayley’s curtains, for some reason, and no one seemed very impressed with Vivek Ramaswamy’s Silicon Valley connections to TikTok.

But when asked which of their candidates they would “vote off the island” — a reference to reality TV — all demurred, with only Christie offering an answer: Trump, of course.

There were occasional invocations of the Gipper, the man who cast a long shadow over the Republican Party until Trump remade it — and an appearance backstage by Gavin Newsom, the Democrat who now occupies the same California governor’s mansion that Reagan once did.


Most on the stage agreed with Reagan’s dictum that the US needs a strong military.

But none of them were keen to mirror his policy of offering citizenship to illegal immigrants who had settled in the United States.

Instead, Ramaswamy said he would “militarize the southern border” and end automatic citizenship for children born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents.

“The kid of a Mexican diplomat does not enjoy birthright citizenship,” he said. “Neither does the kid of an illegal migrant who broke the law to come here.”

Reagan’s shadow

It was a jarring reminder of how things have changed in the Republican Party since the hopefulness of the 1980s.

And almost to underline the way the party has shifted since Reagan, all seven candidates whiffed on a seemingly obvious chance to echo the man who once defined it.

In his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan delivered one of his most memorable lines, which spoke directly to Americans’ fears over the then-worsening economy.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

With gas, groceries and rent all spiraling, and inflation a huge issue for voters, it felt like the perfect line to deliver again, especially here.

But not one of them did.

Malo Pinatel, with AFP