Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appeared to learn from a key mistake he made in the first Republican presidential debate.
DeSantis joined six other GOP contenders at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday night for the second primary debate, in which he sought to portray himself as the candidate best suited to bring a conservative agenda to the White House next year, while also fending off attacks from his competitors.
The debate was a make-or-break moment for the governor, who has faced questions about his ability to compete on a national platform as his poll numbers have staggered in recent weeks, despite the belief he would be the Republican with the strongest chance of beating former President Donald Trump for the nomination.
The governor showed a stronger sense of leadership Wednesday night than during the first debate, in which his performance received a lukewarm response from political observers. Perhaps no moment reflected the change in his approach than the very last minutes of the debate.
Fox News moderator Dana Perino asked the candidates to write down the name of the candidate they believe should drop out of the race, as the final question of the debate.
“It’s now obvious that if you all stay in the race, former President Donald Trump wins the nomination. None of you have indicated that you’re dropping out, so which one of you, on stage tonight, should be voted off the island? Please use your marker to write your choice on the notepad in front of you,” Perino said.
DeSantis, however, led the candidates in refusing to do so.
“I’ll decline to do that, with all due respect. I mean, we’re here. We’re happy to debate. I think that that’s disrespectful to my fellow competitors. Let’s talk about the future of the country,” he said.
DeSantis’ refusal to answer the question marks a shift from one month earlier during the first presidential debate, when he faced criticism after looking to see how other candidates answered when asked if they would still support Trump as the presidential nominee even if he gets “convicted in a court of law.”
Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum raised their hands, while DeSantis appeared to look around at the other candidates before doing so, sparking ridicule from the Trump campaign, which mocked him as “pathetic” in a post to X, formerly Twitter.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, whose relationship with Trump soured following the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, raised his hand after DeSantis. Ultimately, Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who did not qualify for the second debate, were the only two candidates who did not pledge support for the former president if he were to be convicted of a crime.
Newsweek reached out to the DeSantis campaign for comment via email late Wednesday night.