Trump's legal troubles have done little to dent his lead.
Seven US presidential hopefuls tussled over immigration, China and the economy Wednesday at the second Republican primary debate -- but saved some of their most strident remarks to slam frontrunner Donald Trump for spurning the showdown.
The former president, who is battling multiple criminal cases, has decided to skip the debates, and instead met auto industry workers in the battleground state of Michigan.
Trump's no-show prompted former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- the ex-president's biggest antagonist among the candidates -- to accuse the 77-year-old tycoon of hiding "behind the walls of his golf clubs."
"You're ducking these things, and let me tell you what's going to happen. You keep doing that, no one up here is gonna call you Donald Trump anymore. We're gonna call you a Donald Duck," he said, earning boos for the zinger.
Christie was facing off against Trump's chief rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, as well as political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Trump's vice president Mike Pence.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum rounded out the field for the clash at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley, California, moderated by Fox Business and Univision.
More than 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) away in Michigan, Trump was attempting to boost his blue-collar credentials and attack the pro-worker reputation cultivated by President Joe Biden, who visited striking union members in the state on Tuesday.
"Joe Biden claims to be the most pro-union president in history. Nonsense. Think of it. His entire career has been an act of economic treason and union destruction," Trump said in a speech at a non-union factory.
Underscoring the importance of union workers as a voting bloc, the first question of the debate was about handling the strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, now in its second week.
While Ramaswamy voiced sympathy with the workers, Scott made clear his priority was immigration rather than the labor dispute.
"Joe Biden should not be on the picket line. He should be on the southern border, working to close our southern border, because it is unsafe, wide open and insecure," Scott said.
'Missing in action'
Trump's legal troubles have done little to dent his lead, with 59 percent of Republican primary voters in a new NBC News poll making him their top choice, with DeSantis a distant runner-up at 16 percent.
Despite being the leading candidate onstage, DeSantis wasn't asked a question in the first 16 minutes. When he did get his turn, he took his own swipe at the frontrunner for not showing up.
"Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight," DeSantis said. "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."
Christie criticized the former president's record on controlling immigration, an issue central to the current deadlock over government funding paralyzing Congress and threatening to shut down the government.
Despite a fractious debate, with the candidates regularly shouting over one another, the presidential hopefuls agreed on much. But there was genuine division over the war in Ukraine, with Christie, Scott and Pence defending US support for Kyiv, in contrast with skepticism from DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
There were several questions about the growing challenge from Beijing, and Ramaswamy defended his attendance at an event hosted by Chinese-owned video app TikTok, which is banned on US government devices, by saying he was reaching out to young people.
"Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say," Haley told the entrepreneur.
The Biden campaign offered a withering perspective on the policy proposals aired over the two-hour scuffle, especially on border control.
"Not one person on that stage is serious about enacting meaningful immigration reform, and it shows," spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)