Updated September 28, 2023 at 5:36 AM ET

Primary debates are about winnowing down the field of candidates to land on the eventual nominee for a major party. That winnowing process continued at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., where seven Republicans showed up ready to fight.

Attacking Biden, Trump and each other

Just seven candidates took part in this debate, down from eight last month in Milwaukee, after former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson failed to qualify this time. There are less than four months to go before the first nominating contest in Iowa on Jan. 15, and those months will be crucial in determining whether anyone has a chance of taking on the front-runner, former President Donald Trump. Trump skipped this debate, as well as the first one.

That made for a debate that was at times unruly, with the three moderators struggling to control the conversation as candidates talked and shouted over each other.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, at the bottom of the pack in current polls and the last to qualify to appear in the debate, tried to elbow his way into more airtime, jumping in to answer a question about child care out of turn before moderator Dana Perino of Fox News cut him off.

The debate wrapped up with a surprising moment of decorum, when the candidates refused to answer a question posed by Perino, who asked each candidate to single out one rival: "Who should be voted off the island?"

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis balked, saying, "I think that's disrespectful to my fellow competitors."

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visibly indicated his agreement.

Christie eventually said that he would "vote Donald Trump off the island right now."

"Every person on this stage has shown respect for Republican voters" by showing up, Christie said, adding that Trump has divided the country, and divided families.

Haley on fire, again

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who's been gaining ground, particularly in New Hampshire, and outpacing DeSantis in some key polls, showed up with gloves off.

She sparred with both DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott over energy policy. During a heated exchange about how to regulate social media use by teens, Haley told entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy what will perhaps be the single most memorable line: "Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber."

Ramaswamy responded by complaining about the fruitlessness of "personal attacks" as the discussion descended into yet another shouting match between the moderators and candidates.

In an apparent sign that Trump views Haley as a potential threat, his campaign released a statement before the debate even ended attempting to lessen her credibility, calling her weak on immigration. The statement also tried to tie her to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by quoting a 2012 New York Times article in which Haley said she'd been inspired, as a woman, to run for political office because of Clinton's example.

The front-runner was absent but not ignored

Instead of attending the debate, Trump held a rally in Michigan at a non-union auto parts manufacturing plant.

That visit seemed designed to contrast with President Biden's decision to join autoworkers on a picket line in Detroit on Tuesday — a move that some of the Republican hopefuls criticized from the debate stage in California. Scott, for example, said, "Joe Biden should not be on the picket line; he should be on our Southern border working to close our Southern border."

Trump's Republican rivals have little to lose as they continue to trail him in the polls. That's probably why some took direct aim at him, including DeSantis, who lobbed an uncharacteristically pointed attack on Trump's decision not to participate.

"Donald Trump is missing in action," DeSantis said. "He should be on this stage tonight."

Christie accused Trump of skipping the debate not because of his substantial lead in the polls, as Trump has claimed, but because of fear of answering for his record.

"You're ducking these things, and let me tell you what's going to happen," Christie said. "You keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We're going to call you Donald Duck."

China is the foreign policy thread through all things

China loomed large throughout the debate, whether the topic was its dominance in the energy and technology sectors, its role in the flow of fentanyl into the United States, efforts to control Taiwan and friendliness between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin amid Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine.

Haley called for ending normal trade relations with China until the fentanyl supply is cut off and said "a win for Russia is a win for China."

Christie hit on similar themes, warning of alliances between China and Russia and saying, "If we give him any of Ukraine, next will be Poland."

The fading memory of Ronald Reagan

The debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and the event opened with iconic images and speeches from the 40th president. Several questions referred to Reagan, who has taken on a near-mythical status among some in the party. Candidates including Sen. Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence have invoked his name on the campaign trail, with Pence seeking to differentiate the party of Reagan from the party of Trump.

Even so, more than 40 years have passed since Reagan took office, and it's unclear how much that image will continue to resonate with younger voters with little or no memory of him. That's in a party that is struggling to win over young voters, a key demographic in the upcoming general election.

Sleeping with teachers?

One of the weirder lines of discussion surrounded — that's right — politicians "sleeping with teachers." Spoiler alert — the teachers in question were their wives, but don't let that get in the way of a good, snarky quip.

During a conversation about the power of teachers unions, Christie attacked President Biden by saying, "When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you could take the stranglehold away." First Lady Jill Biden has spent her career as an educator, including teaching English at a community college in Virginia.

Several minutes later, Pence followed up by joking that he has been "sleeping with a teacher for 38 years." But he did make the distinction that his wife, former Second Lady Karen Pence, is not a union educator.

Still, good luck getting those images out of your head.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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