Mike Mulholland/AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks in Clinton Township, Michigan, on September 27, 2023.
CNN  — 

A California Republican showdown featuring Donald Trump was playing out Friday – two days after the former president skipped his party’s second 2024 primary debate in Simi Valley.

Trump was among several Republican presidential contenders who traveled to Anaheim to address the California GOP’s fall convention. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott were set to speak to the party faithful later Friday, with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy scheduled to follow them Saturday.

Trump told the supportive Republican crowd Friday that he would win California – a state he lost by more than 5 million votes in 2020 – were it not for a “rigged election system.”

He spent much of his speech riffing on California-specific issues, including water shortages, and lambasted the state’s Democratic leadership, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, one of Trump’s strongest critics.

“California was once the symbol of American success. Today, under the radical left fascists and Marxists that run your state, it’s becoming a symbol of our nation’s decline,” Trump said.

The former president also said he would empower police to crack down on retail thefts if he’s elected.

“We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply: If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store. Shot,” Trump said.

Winner-take-all primary

California, with its 54 electoral votes, is reliably Democratic in general elections. But the state has a significant role to play in the Republican primary: It’s a delegate-rich contest that takes place on Super Tuesday – the March 5 slate of primaries that could be decisive in the race for the GOP nomination.

Already, the scales of California’s primary are tilted in favor of Trump as the state GOP rules could enable him to shut his rivals out of delegates entirely.

The California Republican Party’s executive committee voted this summer to adopt a delegate plan that could be a boon for the Trump campaign. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in next year’s primary, that candidate would win all of California’s delegates, the largest haul available in any state in the GOP presidential race.

It’s similar to the system California used in 2020, but a departure from what the state has done in certain other past primaries, when each congressional district awarded three delegates – allowing candidates to strategically target specific regions, rather than face the daunting cost of competing across the massive state.

DeSantis allies have worked for weeks behind the scenes to persuade California Republicans to reverse course. The pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, which is running much of DeSantis’ political campaign from the outside, fumed about the California GOP’s decision.

“If California is one huge pot, how do you attack that from a grassroots standpoint?” a Never Back Down official said. “Los Angeles has more people in it than Virginia. How do you attack that?”

The official said the super PAC is “not giving up on California” but is unlikely to hold events for DeSantis or to devote grassroots resources – staff for door-knocking and organizing efforts – to the state unless Republicans there change course.

“States that actually want candidates to come need to allow appearances there to matter, and in a pool as big as California, it’s hard to matter,” the official said.

Trump’s trip to California comes near the end of his busiest stretch of campaigning since launching his 2024 presidential bid.

The former president held a rally in South Carolina on Monday, visited autoworkers in Michigan on Wednesday, traveled to California on Friday and is set to campaign in Iowa on Sunday.

The one stop missing from his travel schedule: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where seven GOP rivals participated Wednesday night in the second debate of the primary.

A 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll released Thursday found that GOP primary voters who tuned into the debate graded DeSantis’ onstage performance best but that, overall, the showdown did little to change their perspectives.

Rivals struggle to break through

The appearances in California for DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy come as Trump’s primary rivals compete in what appears to be an increasingly futile battle to emerge as the party’s lone alternative to the former president.

DeSantis and Trump appeared hours apart Friday in Anaheim.

But the convention represents an opportunity for the Florida governor, whose second-place position in GOP primary polling has grown shakier in recent weeks, to court the same crowd as the former president. He kicked off his speech in California by knocking Trump, who had claimed earlier that he was the one to “turn Florida red.”

“I understand that one of my residents was here earlier saying that he turned Florida red. All I will say is Ronald Reagan made the point: There’s no limit to what you can do when you don’t care who gets the credit,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis had criticized Trump’s decision to skip the debate Wednesday night and continued to call the former president “missing in action” the following day.

“He’s had a lot to say about me on social media,” DeSantis told Fox News. “It’s one thing to do it behind the keyboard. Step up onstage and do it to my face. I’m ready for it. You used to say I was a great governor. Now, all of a sudden you’re saying the opposite.”

DeSantis also floated the idea of a one-on-one debate with Trump moderated by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Scott, who was largely sidelined at the first Republican debate, sought to command more of the spotlight Wednesday night – criticizing fellow South Carolinian former Gov. Nikki Haley, as well as Ramaswamy.

“I think it’s really important for us to paint a contrast between where I am on some of the important issues and where others are,” Scott said on CNN afterward. “Frankly, Republican primary voters want to know what the differences are.”

Ramaswamy, who was targeted onstage Wednesday by several rivals, laid out the next phase of his campaign in a post-debate interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, saying he hoped voters will get to know “a different side of me.”

“We’re not going to be doing media frenzies or anything going forward. I’ll talk to everybody, left-wing, right-wing media, doesn’t matter. But I’m going to focus more on what is Day 1 going to look like,” he said.

This story and headline have been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Kate Sullivan, Steve Contorno, Ethan Cohen, Kit Maher, Andrew Millman and Kaanita Iyer contributed to this report.