There was a whiff of desperation in the air at the second Republican debate in Los Angeles on Wednesday night as Donald Trump skipped the event once again.
The seven candidates on stage all trail Mr Trump by a significant margin in the race for the party’s nomination, so his rivals knew they had to do something to change the dynamic of the campaign.
And during a chaotic two-hour debate, they often tried to do it at once, talking over each others, 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.
Here’s a look at some of the key moments from the debate – and who benefitted and suffered from them.
“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.” – Ron DeSantis
The Florida governor came out of the gate early with an attack that indicates he may be pivoting from his past efforts to avoid taking the former president head-on.
That strategy hinged on Mr DeSantis being a clear and attractive alternative for 2020 Trump voters who have grown tired of the former president. But Mr Trump’s base has been sticking with him. So Mr DeSantis may have decided he has to take the former president down if he wants to have any hope of catching him – or even closing the gap – in the polls before voting starts in January.
The problem for DeSantis, of course, is that it’s a lot harder to land blows on a candidate who is more than a thousand miles away. So the governor’s “missing in action” swipe could reveal a hint of frustration at his current predicament.
The Florida governor was steady throughout the debate, once again plugging his Florida record in an implicit contrast with Mr Trump. “I’m the only one up here who has been in the big fights and delivered the big victories for the people of Florida,” he said.
Implicit contrasts aren’t doing it for the Florida governor, however. We’ll see if a direct attack has more success.
“You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid to defend your record. You’re ducking … We’re going to call you Donald Duck.” – Chris Christie
Unlike Mr DeSantis, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made attacking the former president the defining feature of his presidential campaign. He went at it again on Wednesday, coming up with the “Donald Duck” moniker as a way of mocking the former president’s decision to sit out another Republican debate.
But that swipe landed flat with the debate audience – and even attacks more clever than cartoon references have not seemed to dent Mr Trump’s appeal to Republican voters.
What’s more, the chaotic nature of this debate – with candidates talking over each other for extended stretches – brought all the candidates down a peg, as the backyard brawl nature of the proceedings chewed up time and may have turned off viewers.
Polls suggest Mr Trump paid no political price for his decision to skip these debates. In fact, he appears to have expanded his lead over rivals. Nothing that happened on Wednesday night is likely to change that dynamic – and Mr Trump is reportedly planning to skip the next debate in Miami.
“Honestly every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.” – Nikki Haley
Vivek Ramaswamy came into last month’s debate riding an upswing in the polls. That put a target on the quick-tongued businessman for some of his rivals, including Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie.
New debate, same story. In fact, this time around even more of Mr Ramaswamy’s opponents joined the fray. In what was clearly a planned attack, South Carolina Tim Scott went after Mr Ramaswamy for doing business with China earlier in his career.
Mr 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.
Mr Ramaswamy’s competitors view him as a threat. The personal nature of the attacks also suggest that some of them also just don’t like the political newcomer, full stop.
Last month, Mr Ramaswamy came out of the debate an elevated candidate, boosted by the attention of his rivals. This time around, he seemed a bit more rattled by his opponents, who had more pointed attacks.
“I have been discriminated against, but America is not fundamentally a racist nation.” – Tim Scott
A month ago, Tim Scott faded into the background, as his sunny, don’t-go-negative strategy kept him from generating any headlines or momentum out of the event, while others like Ms Haley and Mr Ramaswamy prospered.
This time around, Mr Scott – sporting what looks to be an emerging goatee – was only too happy to challenge his rivals.
He also had one of the most personally passionate moments, as he took issue with Mr DeSantis’ past comments about slaves learning valuable skills during their servitude.
“There is not a redeeming quality in slavery,” he said. “America is a great country because we have faced our demons in the mirror and made a decision.”
Recent reports have indicated that some deep-pocketed Republican donors who initially found Mr Scott appealing were now looking at Ms Haley as a possible Trump alternative. His debate performance on Wednesday night may give him another chance.
“Which one of you on the stage tonight should be voted off the island? – Moderator Dana Perino
At the end of the debate, Dana Perino – one of the Fox Business moderators – noted that if the crowd of candidates does not thin before voting begins in January, Mr Trump would win the nomination. She then asked the seven debate participants to pick a rival who they would chose to drop out first.
None of the candidates took the bait, and some of them seemed visibly angry. Their contempt was a fitting way for a tumultuous two hours to conclude, as all of the candidates repeatedly ignored the pleas from moderators to respect speaking time limits, minimise interruptions and respect the rules of the debate.
In the end, it may have been the ineffective moderators that debate viewers wanted off the island most.