5 takeaways on DeSantis’ performance in second GOP presidential debate

The Florida governor got the most speaking time of any candidate at the debate, which front-runner Donald Trump skipped.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, argues a point with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, argues a point with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. [ MARK J. TERRILL | AP ]
Published Sept. 28|Updated Sept. 29

Wednesday’s second Republican presidential primary debate was, at times, a mess: candidates talking over each other, moderators threatening to cut mics, and a “Survivor”-themed closing question that no one wanted to answer.

But for Gov. Ron DeSantis, there was one positive: He got the most airtime.

DeSantis spoke for 12 minutes and 27 seconds during the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, according to the New York Times. That outpaced entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy by more than 30 seconds, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott by a minute and a half.

Here are some takeaways from DeSantis’ latest debate performance.

A few swings at Trump

More than 15 minutes passed before moderators decided to give DeSantis his first question, on the economy. Instead, he preemptively jumped in before they could ask it, effectively using his response time however he wanted.

And in that response, he criticized not only President Joe Biden, but former President Donald Trump. Following the lead of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, DeSantis said he believed it was time for Trump to show up for a debate.

“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 now.”

He then promised to cut wasteful spending, pulling out a prop — a pen — to make his point.

“I can tell you this, as governor of Florida, we cut taxes, we ran surpluses, we paid down over 25% of our state debt, and I vetoed wasteful spending when it came to my desk,” he said. “And as your president, when they send me a bloating spending bill that’s going to cause your prices to go up, I’m going to take out this veto pen, and I’m going to send it right back to them.”

DeSantis again swiped at Trump while answering a question on abortion, saying he didn’t think that “pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats.”

After Republicans didn’t perform as well in the midterms as they anticipated, Trump said that Republicans, “especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother,” lost the party large numbers of voters.

In 2024, DeSantis said, voters should elect “somebody who’s going to be able to serve two terms.”

“We are not getting a mulligan on the 2024 elections,” DeSantis said. “Republicans have lost three straight elections in a row. We were supposed to have a red wave with inflation at 9%. It crashed and burned. Not in Florida, it didn’t. We delivered in Florida.”

A dodge on insurance

DeSantis was asked about one of the sore spots for Floridians: insurance.

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And he didn’t seem to want to talk about it.

Moderator Stuart Varney asked why 2.5 million Floridians didn’t have health insurance, “worse than the national average.”

“Can Americans trust you on this?” Varney asked.

DeSantis pivoted to blame “Bidenomics,” “overspending,” and “rules and regulations” without directly addressing the topic.

“What we need to do with health care is recognize our health care is putting patients at the back of the bus,” DeSantis said. “We have Big Pharma, Big Insurance and big government and we need to tackle that and have more power for the people and the doctor-patient relationship.”

Varney then pressed him: “Why is your record in Florida on insurance worse than the national average?”

DeSantis again didn’t answer, saying the state has had a “population boom” and “we also don’t have a lot of welfare benefits in Florida.”

One of the reasons why so many Floridians lack health insurance is because he and lawmakers have refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage.

This year alone, more than 120,000 Florida children have lost Medicaid coverage since April, and families have struggled to get help through the state’s helplines.

DeSantis has also received bipartisan scorn for his handling of the state’s property insurance crisis. Floridians pay the highest homeowners insurance premiums in the nation, and the state ranks among the highest for automobile insurance.

DeSantis’ solution has been to make it much harder to sue insurance companies — prompting criticism by Trump earlier this year, who said homeowners were being “crushed” by their insurers.

“Ron DeSanctimonious is delivering the biggest insurance company BAILOUT to Globalist Insurance Companies, IN HISTORY,” Trump posted on Truth Social in May.

A faceoff on African American history

DeSantis was asked again Wednesday night about a Florida education controversy that he has had to explain over and over: a line in new standards for African American history that states that while performing jobs like blacksmithing and agricultural work, teachers should show students how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis responded by saying that the idea Florida was teaching that slavery was good was a “hoax that was perpetuated by (Vice President) Kamala Harris,” adding that the standards were written by Black history scholars.

Scott, the only Black person on the stage, pounced. He has criticized the standards line on the campaign trail, and did so again, saying DeSantis should’ve just “taken the one sentence out.”

“There is not a redeeming quality in slavery,” he said, before pivoting to his own personal experience. “Our nation continues to go in the right direction. It’s why I can say I have been discriminated against, but America is not a racist country. Never ever doubt who we are!”

With lightning-fast speed, DeSantis’ campaign sent out an email blast hitting back, dubbing it the “Scott-Harris lie.”

A fight over drilling and fracking

One of the most direct attacks on DeSantis came from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador. Speaking about energy, she called out DeSantis for opposing fracking and oil drilling, drawing laughs and denials from DeSantis.

“You did it,” she said. “He always talks about what happens on Day 1. You better watch out, because what happens on Day 2 is when you’re in trouble. Day 2 in Florida, you banned fracking, you banned offshore drilling, you did it on federal land, and you took green subsidies you didn’t have to take.”

It’s true that when DeSantis first ran for Florida governor in 2018, he opposed fracking.

“On day one, Ron DeSantis will advocate to the Florida Legislature to pass legislation that bans fracking in the state,” read a line on his campaign website at the time. Two days after his inauguration, he issued an executive order directing the Department of Environmental Protection to push to end all fracking and offshore “oil and gas activities” in Florida. But a state law banning fracking, which is the process of injecting water and chemicals deep into the ground to extract fossil fuels, has not fully come to fruition.

Haley then doubled down, pressing DeSantis on fracking and drilling in Florida. DeSantis shifted responsibility to voters, who enacted a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling, which is hugely unpopular in the peninsula state.

He talked about focusing on increasing drilling in Texas to increase U.S. oil production. On the campaign trail, he has supported offshore drilling in states that allow it.

A pledge to take on prosecutors

When DeSantis was asked how he would address the “root causes” of crime, particularly among repeat offenders, he said that in the last couple of days in southern California, he and his wife, Casey, “have met three people who have been mugged on the street, and that would have never happened 10 or 20 years ago.” (Casey DeSantis was visible in the front row of the debate audience, seated right behind the moderators.)

After touting his suspension of progressive prosecutors in Florida like Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, DeSantis made a pledge to do something similar as president, using the muscle of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“As president, I will use the Justice Department to bring civil rights cases against all those left-wing (George) Soros-funded prosecutors,” he said, referencing the liberal mega-donor. “We’re not going to let them get away with it anymore.”