The third GOP debate finished without a clear frontrunner in the race to pick an unofficial challenger to President Donald J. Trump
MIAMI—For a third time, the field fought for second place and the elusive opportunity to challenge Donald Trump, one-on-one, for the nomination of a party that the former president still seems to control. None of the candidates here left the latest Republican primary debate with a decisive victory.
Trump seemed omnipresent but was somehow seldom acknowledged directly, despite the best efforts of the moderators who began the evening by asking each of the five candidates present why they ought to succeed him as the next GOP champion.
“Donald Trump is a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis replied before noting Trump’s failure to secure the southern border and his unrealized boast that Republicans would “get tired of winning.” Pointing to GOP losses in elections around the country Tuesday, DeSantis added, “Well, we saw last night – I’m sick of Republicans losing.”
“We can’t live in the past. We can’t live in other headlines,” answered former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley before dinging Trump over the national debt run-up while he was in the White House and for the foreign policy positions he has taken since leaving office.
The most pointed answer came from Chris Christie. “Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focused on keeping themselves out of jail cannot lead this party or this country,” New Jersey’s former governor said before pivoting to the “extraordinarily important” domestic and global issues now facing the country.
It was 38-year-old political novice Vivek Ramaswamy who first set himself apart Wednesday night. He did so by dodging the question and attacking the media in the classic Trump style, demanding instead that the NBC News moderators disavow their previous coverage of “the Russia collusion hoax.” They did no such thing.
And with that, Trump, who leads in the RealClearPolitics average by more than 43 points and who has skipped each debate, receded as a character from the contest. The remaining candidates were left to argue over the policy landscape he shaped and the direction of the party he still inhabits. They began with war. With regard to the conflict in Gaza, each offered variations of hawkishness.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said Israel should “wipe Hamas off the map,” while DeSantis answered that, as president, he would counsel Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish the job, once and for all, with these butchers.” Similarly succinct, Haley said of the terrorists who launched the Oct. 7 attack, “Finish them. Support Israel with whatever they need, whenever they need it.”
But the war in Europe elicited no such consensus. While in the Oval Office, Trump curbed the Republican appetite for foreign interventionism, and he has been skeptical of U.S. support of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. Some on stage continued to follow the former president’s cue.
“We need to bring this war to an end,” said DeSantis. And when asked about Ukrainian President Zelensky’s warning that a reduction in materiel support would prolong the conflict and potentially bring the United States directly into the war, the Florida governor replied, “When I’m president, we aren’t going to send your sons and daughters to Ukraine. I am going to send troops to our southern border.”
For his part, Ramaswamy was more than just skeptical. He was overtly hostile to Ukraine. The entrepreneur-turned-politician called Zelensky, a former actor before entering politics, “the comedian in cargo pants.” He said, “Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy” and called on the fledgling nation to cede some of its territory to Russia, knowingly walking into his first conflict with Haley.
Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in Trump’s term, has laid out a limited strategy for U.S. involvement in the conflict, one where Washington sends Kyiv munitions, not money. Ramaswamy’s suggestion that Ukraine sue for peace was too much for Haley: “I’m telling you, Putin and President Xi are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president.”
When the moderators returned to Ramaswamy later in the evening, he launched an attack that seemed at once a snarky fashion review and a critique of neoconservatism.
“Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels? In which case, we’ve got two of them on stage tonight,” Ramaswamy said in an apparent three-part reference to George W. Bush’s vice president, to Haley, who does indeed wear high heels, and to DeSantis, who has denied allegations that he wears boots with a heel to boost his height.
DeSantis ignored the schoolyard taunt. Haley did not. “They’re five-inch heels,” she corrected Ramaswamy, also adding, “They’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”
More defined than that awkward exchange was the debate over how to deal with Beijing. Trump helped end the old Washington consensus on China, casting aside the belief that normalizing trade relations with the communist power would invite economic competition rather than military conflict. Republicans have embraced that view entirely post-pandemic, and one by one, the candidates on stage offered up their own China hawk credentials.
Haley promised to end trade relations with China “until they stop murdering Americans from fentanyl” and added that prescription was “something Ron has yet to say that he’s going to do.”
DeSantis replied by pointing to things he had already done as governor of Florida, like banning Chinese nationals from purchasing farmland and outlawing Confucian institutes from state universities. The conflict with China, DeSantis warned, would be “to this generation what the Soviet Union was to the post-World War II generation.”
Then, the governor accused Haley of being soft on that regime. As evidence, he pointed to her courtship of China Jushi, a partially state-owned manufacturing company when she was governor.
“She welcomed them into South Carolina, gave them land near a military base, wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter, saying what a great friend they were. That was like their number one way to do economic development,” DeSantis claimed.
“Yes, I brought a fiberglass company 10 years ago to South Carolina,” Haley later countered, “but, Ron, you are the chair of your economic development agency that, as of last week, said Florida is the ideal place for Chinese businesses.” It was an apparent reference to a public-private co-op, an initiative called Enterprise Florida. The governor’s office previously told RCP that DeSantis shut down all Chinese outreach as soon as it came to his attention.
Trump’s shadow was evident throughout the night, including during one explosive exchange over the former president’s failure to ban TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media app popular among teenagers and populated with silly dance routines and cat videos, but which has been recently accused of perpetuating less-innocent memes, such as Jew-hatred. National security experts also warn that TikTok may put the personal data of Americans at the fingertips of the Chinese government.
Ramaswamy didn’t seem concerned with that possibility and used the app as a peg to take another cheap shot at Haley. “In the last debate, she made fun of me for actually joining TikTok,” he said, “while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time. So, you might want to take care of your family first.”
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley fired back while the crowd heckled Ramaswamy. “You’re just scum.”
While Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, told RCP the barb was “a petty hit,” she pointed to the barrage of incoming fire from Haley’s rivals as evidence the ambassador was surging. “She clearly has the momentum in this race,” Ankney said. “Every candidate on that stage tried to attack her.”
The moderators anchored much of the debate on foreign policy, but one domestic issue was inescapable. Again, Trump cast a long shadow. His nominees moved the Supreme Court to the right, setting the stage for the reversal of Roe v. Wade last summer and subsequent political battles in each of the 50 states over abortion.
When asked about another defeat for abortion opponents in Ohio, DeSantis reiterated that he supported “a culture of life” but then laid that defeat at the feet of social conservatives. “All this stuff that’s happened to the pro-life cause, they have been caught flat-footed on these referenda,” he said. “And they have been losing.”
This was a stark change in tactics and tone from the governor who signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida. At the previous debate, DeSantis rebuked Trump for blaming social conservatives for election losses, saying, “I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats.”
None of the candidates strayed from their overall opposition to abortion, however. And for his part, Tim Scott doubled down on his call for a federal ban, saying, “I’d challenge Nikki and Ron to join me at a 15-week limit.”
“I will sign anything where we can get 60 Senate votes,” Haley replied, “but don’t make the American people think that you’re going to push something on them when we don’t even have the votes in the Senate.”
The Scott campaign pointed to that exchange as evidence that the competition was becoming “a little bit more moderate” in an attempt “to get the Never Trump vote.” Jennifer DeCasper, the senator’s campaign manager, told RCP that Scott won’t budge. “He’s not going to move to the middle,” she said, “because the middle doesn’t win primaries.”
The remarks from DeSantis weren’t meant as criticism of social conservatives, according to his team in the post-debate “spin room,” so much as they were a call to action. “The pro-life movement has not been there as much as the opposing side to work these ballot referendum fights,” James Uthmeier, the governor’s campaign manager, told RCP, stressing all the while that overturning Roe v. Wade was “a cause for celebration.”
Twenty minutes across town, meanwhile, Trump enjoyed a stage all to himself. “Seven years ago, tonight on Nov. 8, 2016, the American people delivered the greatest election victory,” the former president told supporters of the seismic result that seemed to change everything.
Had his Republican competitors changed anything by debating amongst themselves? “No,” Frank Luntz told RCP as campaigns and candidates filed in and out of the spin room, pressing their case to reporters for why they believed they won the night.
“You have to say that Donald Trump’s a winner tonight because no one stood out,” the longtime Republican pollster sighed. “The race is essentially frozen. As long as it’s frozen in place, that makes him the strongest candidate by far.”
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for Real Clear Politics. He previously wrote for The Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance.
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