At a time when his standing in the polls has slid — and Republican donors have talked about finding another candidate to stop Donald J. Trump from cruising to the nomination — Gov. Ron DeSantis acted like the former president’s leading challenger at the second Republican presidential debate.
Standing center stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday night, he deployed a newly assertive tone against the absent Mr. Trump, using criticisms he has been honing in recent weeks at the urging of his allies. He drew attacks from rivals who did show up, but none seemed to land a killer blow. And despite not saying a word until 15 minutes in, he ultimately imposed himself on the proceedings, speaking more than any other candidate.
“Donald Trump is missing in action,” Mr. DeSantis said during his first remarks of the debate. “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.”
The question is whether the performance will be enough now to stop him from losing ground and to build momentum. Time is running out to convince both skeptical voters and skittish donors that he is still the most competitive challenger to Mr. Trump than anyone else in the field. Mr. Trump’s standing in the race has only risen since the first debate in August, which he also skipped, and national surveys show him leading Mr. DeSantis by roughly 40 percentage points But as his rivals onstage Wednesday night clamored for airtime, conscious of their fading window, the Florida governor projected an air of confidence.
“This is a two-man race,” Andrew Romeo, Mr. DeSantis’s communications director, told reporters in the spin room following the debate.
Still, it was not exactly a breakout showing, and the debate may be best remembered for the seven candidates chaotically shouting over each other as the moderators tried to regain control. Even Mr. DeSantis conceded in an interview with Fox News after the debate that, had he been watching as a viewer, he would have “changed the channel.”
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said that Mr. DeSantis had “embarrassed” himself in front of the entire country, a seeming confirmation that the former president’s team still sees him as enough of a threat. (Mr. Trump’s team also sent out an email blast assailing Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former ambassador to the United Nations.)
Over the summer, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign strategy crystallized into one clear imperative: beat Mr. Trump in Iowa, the first state to vote in the Republican primary. Such a victory would pierce the sheen of the former president’s invincibility and potentially force some of the other candidates to drop out, his supporters say, allowing Mr. DeSantis to consolidate support.
Having poured his resources into Iowa, and seen Mr. Trump attack the state’s popular governor and anger its influential anti-abortion activists, a win there seems more plausible for Mr. DeSantis than it did ahead of the first debate in Milwaukee. At that encounter, the other candidates avoided criticizing Mr. DeSantis, even as they could have taken advantage of his reputation as prickly and awkward when attacked.
By the second debate on Wednesday night, however, their calculations had changed, and Mr. DeSantis was squarely in the cross hairs.
Former Vice President Mike Pence went after him over increased government spending in Florida, as well as the Parkland school shooter’s not receiving the death penalty (a decision by a jury that was not in Mr. DeSantis’s control and to which he responded by signing a bill making it easier to execute people). Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina sparred with the governor over how slavery is taught in Florida schools, a frequent topic of dispute between the two men.
Ms. Haley attacked him for opposing offshore drilling and fracking in Florida as governor while pushing for more oil and gas extraction in the United States as a presidential candidate. Of all the barbs, that one seemed to cut the sharpest. As Ms. Haley talked, Mr. DeSantis theatrically and somewhat uncomfortably laughed, saying that she was “entirely wrong,” although the thrust of her criticism was largely accurate.
The attacks helped make Mr. DeSantis the center of attention in a way he was not in Milwaukee. And rather than starting fights of his own, and allowing other candidates to take back the spotlight, Mr. DeSantis generally stuck to his talking points on immigration, China and the economy while criticizing President Biden and Democrats.
He even led the other candidates in a mini-revolt against the moderators, refusing to engage in a gimmicky attempt to have those onstage write down the name of the rival they thought should drop out of the race.
Still, the bulk of Mr. DeSantis’s attention clearly remains on Mr. Trump.
After the debate, he told the Fox News host Sean Hannity that he wanted to face Mr. Trump one-on-one.
“I think he owes it to our voters to come and make the case,” Mr. DeSantis said.