Welcome to Opinion’s commentary for the second Republican presidential primary candidate debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Wednesday night. In this special feature, Times Opinion writers and contributors rate the candidates on a scale of 0 to 10: 0 means the candidate probably didn’t belong on the stage and should have dropped out before the debate even started; 10 means the candidate can head to Iowa and New Hampshire with the wind at his or her back. Here’s what our columnists and contributors thought about the debate.

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley
Average: 4.9/10

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Jane Coaston She battled with Tim Scott (a lot!) and really, really seemed to dislike Vivek Ramaswamy (granted, she also loved his 2021 book). Fortunately for her, disliking Ramaswamy seems to be a popular sentiment.

Gail Collins This is the one candidate who talked about education in a smart, serious way.

Matthew Continetti Governor Haley is an excellent communicator, but her message was often lost amid all the cross talk. She seemed to be fighting everyone from Ron DeSantis to Tim Scott to Vivek Ramaswamy. Not all of the punches landed. But I’m not sure this debate will boost her poll numbers.

Michelle Cottle Spent much of the evening looking like she wanted to smack someone — anyone. Her performance was as feisty as last time, but she seemed less in control, less focused. Although, to be fair, the entire debate was a gong show.

Ross Douthat A disappointing follow-up to her well-received first debate, she mostly made an impression playing Amy Klobuchar to Vivek Ramaswamy’s Pete Buttigieg — a show of feminine contempt for a male tyro that was fun enough to watch, but didn’t build the momentum toward second place that she needed from this evening.

Michelle Goldberg One question going into this debate was whether Haley could build on her dominant performance last time. Turns out the answer is no. (Also the idea of sending American Special Operations forces into Mexico is insane.)

Katherine Mangu-Ward Haley’s comment that she gets “dumber” when she listens to Ramaswamy was the most quotable of the night, but she failed to repeat her successful strategy from the last debate of establishing herself as the pragmatic grown-up in the room.

Daniel McCarthy In this debate, Governor Haley decided to play the role that Vivek Ramaswamy played last time, frequently interrupting and attacking others. This will earn her good press but not many more votes — she’s auditioning for a television slot rather than the G.O.P. nomination.

Katherine Miller Haley again sounded fairly cogent about foreign policy and reading. In terms of the purest politics, she is doing a slightly (slightly) different thing than much of the field and was a little sharper edged than in the first debate, cutting into DeSantis on energy, Scott on his Washington career and Ramaswamy in general. It will be interesting to see if that doesn’t wear well or if it’s like “this is the only killer.”

Peter Wehner She helped herself for the second debate in a row. She’s the most talented candidate on the stage, skilled at taking on Trump without infuriating the base. In a sane party, she’d be a star. In a deranged party, she finds herself trailing a sociopath by almost 50 points.

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis
Average: 4.8/10

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Jane Coaston If one is currently not leading a presidential primary, one should not debate as if one is. He was barely there, and when he was, he seemed as if he wished he were elsewhere. His strongest moment was on the subject of abortion, a topic on which I think he believes he shares more in common with voters than he actually does.

Gail Collins Really distracted by the way he raises his eyebrows, which doesn’t speak well for the depth of his comments. Including his defense of the theory that slavery was a useful education experience.

Matthew Continetti Governor DeSantis is not an exciting debater, but he remains the most plausible alternative to Donald Trump. He sticks to his message, respects the other candidates and makes few mistakes. He zinged Trump a few times for not showing up to the debate, and defended his record on abortion against Trump’s criticisms. He emphasized his winning electoral record and his policy accomplishments. This is what a Republican nominee looks like — but DeSantis has a lot of lost ground to make up.

Michelle Cottle He was more awake and engaged this time. Better about jumping into the fray. Even took a gentle swing or two at the absent Trump. He is still awkward, and there’s probably nothing to be done about that smile — or that whiny voice. If he were the front-runner, he could feel really good about this performance. But he’s not.

Ross Douthat Very similar to last time in its above-it-all, straight-to-the-camera, I’m-the-front-runner attitude, with a couple of more effective moments where he actually tried to pivot off his rivals. Nobody took him down, he didn’t get dirtied, his core support will probably stay solid — but his strategy seems predicated on having 30 to 40 percent of the G.O.P. electorate in his pocket and he’s got only 10 or 15 percent.

Michelle Goldberg DeSantis took a few strategic swipes at Trump while stroking the erogenous zones of right-wing influencers. It may be too late for him to turn his flailing campaign around, but he demonstrated why he was once seen as a credible Trump successor.

Katherine Mangu-Ward The most inspiring moment of the debate was when the candidates — led by DeSantis — rose up and collectively refused to participate in the moderators’ gimmick asking them to say who on the stage should be “voted off the island.” And at least as the polling stands, that is also how the primary will go, with DeSantis heroically leading the non-Trump candidates to their collective doom.

Daniel McCarthy He’s the best fit for the G.O.P. of anyone onstage, but his debate appearances don’t help him at all against the only rival that matters, Trump. His Florida record is a strength, but by relying on it too much he sounds like he’s running for governor, not president of 50 states.

Katherine Miller Nothing really seemed to go wrong for him. Not a ton seemed to separate him from everyone else, though. Not just for DeSantis, but the U.S. military interventions into Mexico sounded even more jarring in the context of Fox and Univision’s overall questions about the logistics of that.

Peter Wehner His campaign is flaming out; this debate did nothing to change that. DeSantis is intensely dislikable, cold and distant even when telling personal stories, and he just can’t shake that creepy smile. During the debate, he obsessed on his record as governor, clinging to it like a drowning man to a life raft. More donors are likely to flee this wreck of a candidate.

Chris Christie

Chris Christie
Average: 4.0/10

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Jane Coaston He really, really, really wanted to fight Donald Trump, who was not present. So he yelled at him via the cameras.

Gail Collins Cheers for Christie for reminding the audience that Donald Trump was afraid to show up. But calling him Donald Duck was just … dumb.

Matthew Continetti Governor Christie had a few solid moments, but they were fleeting. His direct-to-the camera address to Trump ended with a bad joke. His position on Ukraine is not popular with the modern G.O.P. His answer on artificial intelligence was interesting. He’s under 3 percent an average of national polls. He’s slipped to fourth place in New Hampshire. The rationale for his candidacy is fading.

Michelle Cottle Another strong performance. He took multiple swings at Trump, both on policy matters and for ducking yet another debate. He even managed to take a truly insipid closing question by the hapless moderators — “Who would you vote off the island?” — and use it to stress Trump’s disrespect for Republican voters. The guy still doesn’t have a prayer, but someone needs to be in there throwing those punches.

Ross Douthat “Donald DUCK”? Look, if you want frontal attacks on Trump, he’s your guy, but we know most Republicans don’t, and on tonight’s evidence, there isn’t much more to Christie’s case for himself.

Michelle Goldberg His taunting of Trump was amusing until his cringy attempt at a burn with “Donald Duck.”

Katherine Mangu-Ward One of Christie’s few good moments was when he borrowed Haley’s successful observation from the last debate about the complicity of Biden and Trump on matters of spending and debt and tied it to the impending government shutdown quite effectively: “If the government closes, it is to the blame of everyone in Washington, D.C., who has failed to do their job and just plays to the grandstand.”

Daniel McCarthy Governor Christie seemed to benefit from disproportionate airtime — or maybe he just used it effectively. He sounds more experienced and down to earth than many rivals, but his focus on Trump overshadows all else. He should run as pro-Christie, not anti-Trump.

Katherine Miller Christie gave a compelling answer about treating all life as valuable, including treatment for people in dire circumstances with addiction issues. Then he shifted into a breakdown of his re-election in New Jersey, which feels like the clearest drift from the original message/Trump protest dimension of this candidacy.

Peter Wehner Debates were supposed to be his forte. In two he’s been impressive but hardly dominant. His best moment was his last moment, when he spoke about how Trump has divided not just the country but families. Christie’s defense of Ukraine was stirring. His worst moment was a canned line in which he compared Donald Trump to Donald Duck (Disney defamation suit to follow).

Tim Scott

Tim Scott
Average: 3.6/10

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Jane Coaston Good response about Florida’s education strategy regarding teaching about slavery. But then he started yelling about curtains.

Gail Collins Senator Scott may not have always been right or even sensible. But he was better this time around when it came to just speaking up.

Matthew Continetti Senator Scott loomed larger in this debate, but he didn’t quite achieve liftoff. He relied heavily on his biography and on his inspirational view of American exceptionalism. His lines are well-rehearsed and well-delivered, but they haven’t been enough to boost him in the polls. His attack on Haley over curtains at the U.N. ambassador’s residence was confusing and a little sad. Which is a pretty good description of this second G.O.P. debate.

Michelle Cottle The senator still is not breaking through. But he is still playing hard for the V.P. slot. So … good luck with that?

Ross Douthat He actually showed up tonight, got off a couple of idealistic stemwinders despite his apparent cold, took his turn scrapping with Ramaswamy and tried to pick a fight with his fellow South Carolinian over something to do with curtains. His audition tape to be Donald Trump’s vice president is modestly improved, his chances of being the nominee are not.

Michelle Goldberg His bickering with Ramaswamy and Haley — at one point squabbling with her over curtains — only made him look small. What’s the point of running for runner-up?

Katherine Mangu-Ward When asked to explain his comments about firing strikers, he said the words “fentanyl” and “Mexico” a bunch of times. In that sense, his performance was totally typical of the G.O.P. field.

Daniel McCarthy Senator Scott may have gained the most from this debate, He seemed more mature yet no less passionate than in the past. Like the others, he interrupted and bickered a bit, but when he spoke for himself he had substance and polish enough to stand above the scrum.

Katherine Miller Like DeSantis, he was certainly more fluid and interactive. At this point, he and DeSantis have parts of a fairly similar issue set (border, abortion restrictions), and he was more assertive — but it’s tricky to balance when part of the pitch is “nice.”

Peter Wehner His best moment and his worst moment came in the same answer. In response to Florida’s school curriculum, Scott said, “there’s nothing redeeming about slavery.” Amen. Then he implied that L.B.J.’s Great Society was worse for Blacks than slavery. What? Scott’s campaign theme is to project optimism. It won’t work in a party that thrives on animus, fear and conflict.

Vivek Ramaswamy

Vivek Ramaswamy
Average: 2.7/10

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Jane Coaston He is clearly very irritating to the other candidates, and to many people in general, and is aware of that fact, and yet, he goes on.

Gail Collins No matter how you feel about the issues, it cannot be fun to listen to this guy yelling. And quote of the night from Haley: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.”

Matthew Continetti I gave Ramaswamy a high score last time because, though I find him annoying, I could see his appeal to MAGA populists looking for a disruptive outsider. I don’t think MAGA will be as pleased with his performance in Simi Valley, however. He tried to be collegial and modest, but it’s hard to be something you are not. The field scored major blows against him on the TikTok question and on his business connections to China. His youth and inexperience were on display. This debate won’t change the trend.

Michelle Cottle He went from glibly insulting his rivals in the first debate to repeatedly lecturing them about not being insulting in this one — which just ticked them off more. He wasn’t as bro-ish, which was a small blessing. But he once again came across as obnoxious, wildly over-caffeinated and aggressive verging on angry. He is so lucky Haley didn’t smack him.

Ross Douthat Somebody told him that his attention-grabbing performance last time was too polarizing and alienating, so he decided to go with unctuous fake humility instead. He still stirred up the same hatred from his rivals, and honestly I preferred Vivek 1.0 to the pious, Reagan-invoking reboot.

Michelle Goldberg He had the unctuous interparty magnanimity of a man who imagines himself the front-runner. It was even more insufferable than the pugilistic pose he adopted in the last debate.

Katherine Mangu-Ward Ramaswamy would like the G.O.P. to appeal to young people by meeting them where they are — including on TikTok — but also raise the voting age to 25 and require age verification on social media. OK. (This was a banger, though: “Capitalism is still the best system known to man to lift us up from poverty and we should not apologize for it.”)

Daniel McCarthy He was the brash new thing in the first debate, but brought nothing novel to the discussion this time. His attempt at humility in referring to himself as a know-it-all rang hollow when more voters are worried that Ramaswamy doesn’t know nearly enough about most policy topics.

Katherine Miller Ramaswamy can veer from a holistic answer about drug abuse that’s much more polished than the other populists when they speak about fentanyl to standard-issue MAGA answers about trans rights and Ukraine. He is where a lot of base voters are, though.

Peter Wehner The change in Ramaswamy between the first debate and this one was head-snapping. Last time, he made ad hominem attacks against his competitors; this time he portrayed himself as BFF to all. It didn’t work. The irritation the other candidates have for him is visceral. The rest of America is with you. “Thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting” may be the most memorable thing he says this entire campaign.

Doug Burgum

Doug Burgum
Average: 2.6/10

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Jane Coaston He was there and seemed cogent. Which was nice.

Gail Collins We were frequently reminded which debater is governor of North Dakota.

Matthew Continetti Governor Burgum is a substantive candidate. He has a record of success in business and politics. His answers were all solid, and a few of them were thought-provoking. But he is not a serious contender for the nomination and shouldn’t have been on the debate stage.

Michelle Cottle In a debate perpetually tilting toward chaos, what you really don’t need is a D-list candidate endlessly clamoring to be recognized — especially when his rambling answers are off point as often as not. Stop, just … stop.

Ross Douthat A smart guy auditioning to be a cabinet secretary should have been one-and-done on this stage.

Michelle Goldberg It’s hard to see what he thought he was accomplishing by buying his way onto the stage for this train wreck.

Katherine Mangu-Ward “Every time the federal government’s involved — whether it’s higher education, health care, or now the auto industry — things get more expensive and less competitive.” Yep.

Daniel McCarthy With the lowest expectations coming in, Governor Burgum could easily exceed them: His message discipline is admirable, he stakes a clear claim as the federalism-and-business-experience guy, but his federalism torpedoes him with Republicans on parental rights and transgender issues.

Katherine Miller Burgum still seems like he has a sense of proportion about issues and their severity that feels more normal than a lot of national politicians’, but it also feels like it’s more for a Senate or governor run.

Peter Wehner He never should have gotten into the race; it’s past time for him to leave it.

Mike Pence

Mike Pence
Average: 2.4/10

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Jane Coaston I did not enjoy learning more about his marriage.

Gail Collins Boy, Pence sort of disappeared from the stage, didn’t he? Most memorable comment: “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 30 years.”

Matthew Continetti The former vice president was a marginal figure during the debate. His only memorable line was that he’s been “sleeping with a teacher for 30 years.” T.M.I.! I admire Mike Pence greatly, but it is hard to see him gaining any traction.

Michelle Cottle He makes me tired and sad just to watch. So painfully out of sync with his party.

Ross Douthat The absence of sustained arguments about Trump himself and Jan. 6 stripped away the most interesting aspects of his candidacy, and what remained was just boredom and anachronism.

Michelle Goldberg With his deadly earnest Zombie Reaganism, he’s running for president of a party that no longer exists.

Katherine Mangu-Ward Pence might quite reasonably believe that he deserves to claim the Reagan mantle, especially since his brand of principled conservatism recently garnered kudos from several former Reagan officials. But Reagan was actually funny.

Daniel McCarthy Nothing the vice president said made an effective case for him over any of his competitors, who seem fresher and more energetic than he does. Even Governors Christie and Burgum have more distinctive identities; Mike Pence is just there. He may soon go the way of Asa Hutchinson.

Katherine Miller One of the disorienting things about Pence’s campaign is the way it’s retro early ’80s and out of sync, social and economic policy-wise and in his relationship to Trump, with where a lot of Republicans are. This was all reflected in his joking as though the audience was going to be with him, culminating in the nightmare joke about sleeping with a teacher.

Peter Wehner Trump can’t stop focusing on 2020; Pence can’t stop focusing on the 1980s. The country is dramatically different, the G.O.P. even more so. In many ways, it’s the anti-Reagan party. Oh, and Pence is probably the last person on earth who should be making jokes about who he sleeps with.

In regard to policy over personality, which Republican candidate could you get behind?

Gail Collins, Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg are Times columnists. Douthat is also a host of “Matter of Opinion.”

Jane Coaston is a contributing writer to Opinion. She was the host of Opinion’s podcast “The Argument.” Previously, she reported on conservative politics, the G.O.P. and the rise of the right. She also co-hosted the podcast “The Weeds.”

Matthew Continetti (@continetti) is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”

Michelle Cottle (@mcottle) is a domestic correspondent in Opinion and a host of “Matter of Opinion.”

Katherine Mangu-Ward (@kmanguward) is the editor in chief of Reason magazine.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of “Modern Age: A Conservative Review.”

Katherine Miller (@katherinemiller) is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.

Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) is a contributing Opinion writer and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum.





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