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GOP presidential candidates debate on Fox News at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023, in Simi Valley, CaliforniaRumble/Screenshot

SIMI VALLEY, California (LifeSiteNews) — Contenders for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination addressed numerous topics of interest to pro-life and pro-family Americans Wednesday evening during the second GOP primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The debate, hosted by Fox Business and Univision, featured seven contenders but once again lacked the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, who once again opted not to participate – a choice panned by several of his challengers.

Trump’s lead rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, slammed Trump as “missing in action,” declaring he owed it to Republican voters to defend his record on issues like government spending and particularly his recent comments attacking heartbeat laws as “terrible” and blaming the abortion issue for GOP losses in 2022. “I want him to look the people who have been fighting this fight for a long time in the eyes and explain himself,” he said. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie quipped that Trump’s absence warranted renaming him “Donald Duck.”

The questioning covered a wide range of topics, during which DeSantis pledged as president to bring civil rights cases against negligent local prosecutors put into office by leftist financier George Soros, while Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence said if elected he would dismantle Obamacare by “reviv[ing] federalism” and returning healthcare policy to the states.

Several candidates got the opportunity to weigh in on the trend of subjecting gender-dysphoric minors to life-altering “transition” practices, which businessman Vivek Ramaswamy called a mental health issue, affirmation of which was anything but compassionate. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said the issue is one for individual states to resolve, and Pence endorsed a federal ban for the practice, while adding that promotion of school choice would force ideologically-biased schools to “straighten out” quickly.

DeSantis touted his record on education in Florida, including enacting universal school choice and a parents’ bill of rights, banning critical race theory from classrooms, and replacing woke ideology with appreciation for America’s founding values. “Florida is showing how it’s done and kids are winning,” he said.

When asked how Republicans can win despite the perceived political disadvantage of the abortion issue, DeSantis said he would win over independent voters “the same way we did in Florida,” citing his 19-point reelection last year despite the GOP underperforming in most of the country. He also rejected the notion that pro-lifers were to blame for that year’s losses, invoking the late President Ronald Reagan’s sentiments that “every single person has purpose and worth,” and stressing the importance of exposing Democrats’ radicalism on the issue.

Christie answered by touting his vetoing of taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood 14 times, which he said was a particularly challenging stand in a blue state, while noting that he considered abortion a state issue and calling on pro-lifers to appeal to independents by stressing that they are pro-life “for the entire life” by signaling compassion for born people, such as fentanyl addicts.

Former President Trump maintains a commanding lead for the nomination, even as grave questions persist as to whether he can defeat President Joe Biden in a rematch. Primary voting begins next January with the Iowa caucuses, where DeSantis supporters hope the governor’s ground operation will deliver a victory that reverses the trajectory of the nomination battle.