DeSantis slams Trump: Takeaways from second GOP debate

Gov. Ron DeSantis was more aggressive in the second GOP presidential primary debate, going after Donald Trump over federal spending, the former president’s absence on the debate stage and his recent comments on abortion.

Yet even as he tried to turn the heat up on Trump, DeSantis found himself on the defensive over state spending, the high number of uninsured Floridians, banning fracking for oil and natural gas and the state’s African American history standards.

DeSantis’ struggling campaign sank further in the polls after the first debate last month, and it’s not clear he did anything Wednesday to halt that decline and narrow Trump’s big lead.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears on stage at the start of the FOX Business Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
(Credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

DeSantis used questions about immigration, crime and China to hammer his talking points but bristled at times when pressed on his record in Florida, especially history standards that say slaves “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis faced tougher questions from the moderators and more criticism from his opponents than in the first debate.

Here are four takeaways from the debate.

‘Trump is missing in action’

As Trump widens his lead, DeSantis has been under pressure to take him on more forcefully.

The first chance DeSantis had to speak Wednesday, he did just that, immediately criticizing Trump.

“Where’s Joe Biden? He’s completely missing in action from leadership and you know who else is missing in action? Donald Trump is missing in action,” DeSantis said. “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt, that set the stage for the inflation that we have.”

Trump’s dominance in the polls raised questions about whether Wednesday’s debate even matters, and if any of the candidates have a realistic chance. Most of the candidates have avoided aggressively challenging Trump.

DeSantis’ comments early in the debate signaled he may be prepared to go harder at Trump. He followed up his early comments late in the debate by criticizing Trump’s remarks that the six-week abortion ban DeSantis passed in Florida is “terrible.”

“The former president… he should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing,” DeSantis said. “I want him to look into the eyes and tell people who have been fighting this fight for a long time.”

(From left) Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy debate during the FOX Business Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Yet even as he tried to chip away at Trump’s hold on the GOP base, DeSantis found himself defending his own record in Florida amid pointed questions from the moderators.

Pressed on slavery, uninsured

The debate moderators delved into DeSantis’ record in Florida, highlighting an episode that received considerable attention and another issue that has been less explored.

A question about Florida’s African American history standards seemed to touch a nerve with DeSantis and his supporters. The standards received national attention because of language stating slaves derived a “benefit” from their bondage by learning skills.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the FOX Business Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

The moderator said the issue is hurtful and “personal” for people. DeSantis responded by calling the issue “a hoax” and saying the history standards were “written by descendants of slaves.”

U.S. Sen Tim Scott pressed DeSantis to “take the line out.”

“There is not a redeeming quality in slavery,” he said.

The exchange highlighted DeSantis’ penchant for courting controversy, especially on race and LGBTQ issues. That has won him many supporters in the GOP, but some believe he has gone too far in pushing culture war battles.

DeSantis later was pressed by the moderator about Florida’s high number of people without health insurance. More than 11% of the state’s residents have no health insurance, according to Census Bureau estimates. Only Georgia, Texas and Wyoming have a higher share of the population uninsured.

“Over 26 million Americans don’t have insurance coverage,” the moderator noted. “Gov. DeSantis, 2.5 million of them are in your state. That’s worse than the national average. Can Americans trust you on this?”

DeSantis said the uninsured problem is “a symptom of our overall economic decline, everything has gotten more expensive.”

DeSantis rambled about inflation driving up the cost of groceries and gas and then pivoted to attacking “Big Pharma, big insurance and big government.”

The moderator pressed DeSantis: “Why is your record in Florida on insurance worse than the national average?”

DeSantis said “our state is a dynamic state” that has fewer “welfare benefits” to encourage people to work. Florida also is among only 10 states refusing to expand the Medicaid insurance program to cover more low income people.

The two questions highlighted one of the major criticisms of DeSantis: That he has not focused enough on cost-of-living issues as he fights culture war battles.

DeSantis’ inability to effectively counter a predictable question about Florida also may raise doubts about his staff’s skills at preparing him for the debate. It also challenges his overarching campaign theme: That voters should send him to the White House because of his success in Florida.

Jabbed by Pence, Haley

DeSantis largely avoided criticism in the first debate, but found himself facing more incoming fire on Wednesday.

Pence swiped at DeSantis for growing the state budget substantially during his time in office.

“Ron, you talk a really good game about cutting spending but you’ve increased spending in Florida by 30%,” Pence said.

The moderator went to a commercial break and DeSantis never had a chance to respond.

(From left) Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott speak during the FOX Business Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Later, Nikki Haley took a swipe at DeSantis on energy issues.

“Ron DeSantis is against fracking, he’s against drilling… he always talks about what happens on day one, you better watch out because what happens on day two is when you’re in trouble,” Haley said. “Day two in Florida you banned fracking, you banned offshore drilling.”

DeSantis responded by noting that he recently rolled out an energy plan that emphasizes the development of new fossil fuel resources. He unveiled the plan in West Texas in front of an oil well.

But shortly after being sworn in as governor in 2019 he issued an executive order that touched on fracking, a process for extracting oil and natural gas. It orders the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to “Take necessary actions to adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.”

DeSantis has faced little scrutiny of his record from other candidates, but that may change as he looks increasingly vulnerable.

DeSantis touts military service as separating him from field

DeSantis managed to tuck into the debate several references to his military service as a Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG), a lawyer, with a tour that included stops in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. 

The Florida governor has begun highlighting his military record in campaign stops – clearly looking to not only separate himself from the seven rivals that shared the stage with him Wednesday night, but also former President Trump and current President Joe Biden, none of whom served in the armed forces. 

“I think being able to serve and I’ll be the first president elected since 1988 who actually served overseas in a war,” DeSantis said, adding that he passed over lucrative job offers after attending Yale and Harvard Law School to join. 

“I think that’s going to help me as Commander-in-Chief, to know how you see these issues and understand that there are real lives at stake for people that wear the uniform,” he said. 

How much military service still resonates on a resume of a candidate in a Republican Party now so controlled by Trump is an open question. 

It likely can’t hurt.  

But less certain is whether if DeSantis’ service can pull voters away from Trump, who successfully received a medical deferment for bone spurs that kept him out of the military during the Vietnam War era. 

The Florida governor also may be more ready to promote his military service since a recent New York Times investigation found no evidence supporting a Guantanamo detainee’s claim that a young DeSantis had overseen forced feeding of inmates. 

DeSantis had declined to be interviewed by reporters about his service on the base and his campaign refused to release records from this period. 

John Kennedy of the USA TODAY Network-Florida’s Capital Bureau contributed to this report.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson is on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport.

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