In the opening moments of the debate, Former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey launched an attack against the absent former President Donald J. Trump, accusing him of evading the democratic process. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida swiftly joined in, further criticizing Trump for missing the debate, portraying him as reluctant and avoiding accountability.

Christie’s criticism was not limited to a single jab. Following the initial commercial break, he seized the opportunity to address Trump directly, looking into the camera as he spoke. “Donald, I know you’re watching, you can’t resist,” Christie declared. “Your absence tonight isn’t due to polls or indictments. You’re not here because you’re afraid to defend your record on this stage. You’re evading these challenges, and let me tell you what will happen. If you continue to do so, no one up here will refer to you as Donald Trump anymore. We’ll call you Donald Duck.”

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Earlier in the debate, Christie had already taunted Trump, alleging that he “hides behind the walls of his golf clubs.” DeSantis promptly echoed this sentiment, emphasizing Trump’s absence.

DeSantis took a different approach from his stance in the previous debate, where he had been less critical of Trump. This time, he explicitly called out Trump for not being present, emphasizing the need for him to defend his record. DeSantis pointed out that during Trump’s presidency, the national debt had increased by $7.8 trillion, setting the stage for the inflation the country was currently experiencing.

Christie’s immediate criticism of Trump was in line with his campaign strategy, which consistently targeted the former president. He reiterated this stance minutes later, asserting that Trump had only constructed 52 miles of the promised border wall.

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DeSantis’s more direct attack on Trump marked a notable shift from his previous debate performance, signifying an effort to establish sharper distinctions between himself and the former president.