Two months ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate in Miami was one of a dwindling number of opportunities for former President Donald Trump’s rivals to prove that they have a real chance of winning the nomination.
National and early state polls continue to show Trump dominating the field, with the support of as many as half of Republicans. The former president once again skipped the debate, instead holding his own rally in nearby Hialeah.
His GOP opponents started the debate by landing some blows on the former President, but quickly pivoted to attacking each other and outlining their own views on the Israel-Hamas war, related hate incidents at home, and China. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley occupied much of the spotlight as they vie for second in the polls, with both DeSantis and Haley accusing each other of having ties to China and only attacking the country’s leaders when convenient..
These were some of the highlights of the third Republican presidential debate in the 2024 campaign.
Knives out for Trump
Asked at the start of the debate why any of them should be the Republican nominee over Trump, the five candidates onstage drew some of the clearest contrasts yet.
“Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” said DeSantis. “He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance. He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp. And he said Republicans were going to get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night. I’m sick of Republicans losing. In Florida, I showed how it’s done,” referencing his landslide reelection in 2022.
Haley painted a portrait of a country in dire straits thanks to antisemitism, an insecure border, and wars abroad. She described Trump as the right choice for 2016, but not for 2024, blaming him for saddling the country with $8 trillion in debt.
“He used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues, now he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again,” she said, earning applause from attendees.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy lamented Republicans’ losses in multiple states Tuesday night, but mostly steered clear of attacking Trump, instead going after the NBC News anchors who were moderating the debate and suggesting Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and Elon Musk would have been better picks.
Criticizing Trump was familiar territory for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, known for his nice-guy reputation, avoided criticizing Trump by name but suggested that he is the candidate who could solidify the base and attract independents, as well as African American and Hispanic voters.
All five candidates made clear their firm support for Israel, and spent virtually no time expressing concern for the situation in Gaza, as the humanitarian crisis there deepens.
“Finish the job once and for all with these butchers, Hamas,” DeSantis said he would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as president. He emphasized that he mobilized Florida resources to return American hostages to the United States.
Haley highlighted her experience working as ambassador to the United Nations.
“It is not that Israel needs America,” she said. “America needs Israel. They are the tip of the spear when it comes to this Islamic terrorism and we need to make sure that we have their backs in that process.”
Ramaswamy used fiery rhetoric to advocate for his more isolationist views, saying, “I would tell him to smoke those terrorists on his Southern border and I’ll tell him, as President of the United States, I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our Southern border.”
As he did in previous debates, he went after Haley. “Do you want a leader from a generation that’s going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” he asked, sparking a roar of laughter.
Haley shot back minutes later, saying, “I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”
Scott called for an escalation in America’s response to the war. He said he’d tell President Joe Biden, “If you want to stop the 40-plus attacks on military personnel in the Middle East, you have to strike in Iran.” Haley and DeSantis also slammed Biden for not being tough enough on Iran.
Antisemitism on college campuses
Matthew Brooks, the CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition, asked the candidates what they would say to Jewish students who’ve felt threatened on campus in recent weeks, and to university presidents who have not forcibly condemned Hamas terrorism.
Ramaswamy condemned campus antisemitism, but said it must be quelled by leadership, rather than censorship.
“If we go the direction of Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, with whom I respectfully disagree on this issue, pro-censorship, telling student groups to disband, mark my words, soon they will say if you question a vaccine and its side effects, you’re a bioterrorist,” he said.
Scott suggested a more punitive position, pledging to cut university funding and deport students to stop individuals from promoting genocide or terrorism.
“Let me just say to every single university president in America, federal funding is a privilege, not a right, number one,” Scott said. “Number two, to every student who’ve come to our country on a visa to a college campus, your visa is a privilege, not a right.”
DeSantis said he was the first to advocate canceling the visas of foreign students who demonstrate in support of Hamas. Christie, meanwhile, was asked how he would help Muslim Americans who have feared for their own safety. Christie, who was a U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, pointed to his decision to send federal agents to synagogues and to personally visit mosques after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“You must work with both sides, both sides need to know it,” he said. “But let us never have a false moral equivalence between Hamas and Hezbollah and the Jewish people. The Jewish people stand for right and justice and Hamas and Hezbollah stand for death.”
Haley said higher education leaders weren’t treating anti-semitism on their campuses as seriously as they would racism.
“If the KKK were doing this, every college president would be up in arms,” she said.
Ramaswamy questions Haley's role as a mother, drawing loud boos
Asked about concerns around TikTok, several candidates expressed support for banning the Chinese-owned app. But it was an exchange between Haley and Ramaswamy that drew the biggest response. The biotech entrepreneur was asked about banning the app while he himself uses it. He quickly pivoted.
“In the last debate, she made fun of me for actually joining TikTok,” Ramaswamy said of Haley. “Well, her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time. So you might want to actually take care of your family first, before preaching—”
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley said, shaking her head and rolling her eyes as the audience erupted in a chorus of boos. Haley has a daughter and a son, both of whom are adults.
“You have her supporters propping her up,” Ramaswamy said, while Haley replied, “You’re just scum.” She smiled icily while Ramaswamy continued talking. The moderators then afforded Haley a chance to respond, and she proceeded to defend her record on China.
Abortion and the GOP
Following elections on Tuesday in which abortion rights supporters saw major wins in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia, the candidates were asked about the path forward on the issue. None seemed to be moved.
DeSantis said he stands for “a culture of life.” But he added that he understands different states will handle the issue differently.
“Of all the stuff that’s happened to the pro-life cause, they have been caught flat-footed on these referenda,” he said. “A lot of the people who are voting for the referenda are Republicans who would vote for a Republican candidate.”
Haley said that she continued to be "pro-life," but said, “There’s some states that are going more on the pro-choice side. I wish that wasn’t the case, but the people decided.” She reiterated a point she’s made before, that the political reality in Congress requires a President finding consensus.
Scott called on DeSantis and Haley to join him in supporting a 15-week limit on abortion. Haley called Scott out for not openly committing to that standard earlier in his bid.
None of the candidates touched on Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin made a proposed 15-week abortion ban that included exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother the centerpiece of his high-profile bid to boost Republicans in Tuesday's state elections. It didn't work. Democrats not only maintained control of the state's Senate, but flipped control of the House.
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