MIAMI, Nov 8 (Reuters) – Five candidates trying to halt Donald Trump’s march to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination gathered in Miami on Wednesday for the party’s third debate, while the former president held a separate campaign rally across town.
Here are some things from the debate:
A RACE FOR SECOND PLACE
It wouldn’t be hard to argue that the biggest winner at Wednesday’s debate was Trump.
As he held a raucous rally with thousands of cheering supporters in a stadium 10 miles from the debate hall, the Republican candidates on stage left the party’s front-runner largely unscathed.
Trump was barely mentioned in the two-hour debate, either by the candidates or the moderators, and when he was, it was mostly in absurd statements from candidates like former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who said it was time for the country to move on. They were not pressed on Trump’s actions to overturn the 2020 election or the possibility that he would be convicted in one of four criminal cases in which he is defending himself.
Even obvious openings, such as when Trump criticized Israel last month after Hamas launched a deadly attack on Oct. 7, were not mentioned by his opponents.
At his rally in nearby Hialeah, Trump responded to criticism that he lacked the courage to show up for the debate.
“I’m standing in front of tens of thousands of people right now and it’s on television,” he said. “It’s much harder to do than a debate.”
For Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who both needed a strong night to argue that they are the party’s best alternative to Trump, the omission cost them the opportunity to make a lasting and affirmative case for why Trump is unfit to be the Republican nominee. Instead, they appeared to be playing for second place.
Given one last minute to make their pitches and summarize their candidacies, it was fitting that none of the five on stage mentioned the man they are all chasing. And there was no indication that any of them were close to the gap.
A night after a bad run of election losses at the hands of the Democrats on Tuesday, the candidates vented their frustrations on the debate stage.
“I’m tired of Republicans losing,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis has long contrasted his successful re-election last year in Florida with Republican setbacks in the past few elections, including Trump’s loss in 2020. Earlier in the day, his campaign argued that backing Trump cost candidates seats in races like the one for governor. of Kentucky, where Republican Daniel Cameron lost to Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear.
Republicans were also upset Wednesday by the success of a ballot question in Ohio enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution, as well as the loss of state legislative control in Virginia.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy blamed Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, rather than Trump, for the party’s recent performance.
“We have become a lot of losers,” he lamented. “We must have accountability in our party.”
McDaniel was Trump’s handpicked choice to lead the RNC in 2017, and the committee sponsored Wednesday’s debate.
With Tuesday’s election results showing abortion remains a toxic issue for Republicans, the candidates offered different ideas on how to move forward.
Haley urged her party to be up front with voters, acknowledging that some states will continue to allow the practice and that a federal ban was unlikely to ever pass Congress.
“What I’m saying to the American people is just, let’s see what we can agree on,” she said.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also argued that it was an issue best left to states. “I trust that the people of this country, state by state, will make the call for themselves,” he said.
DeSantis said the anti-abortion movement, after successfully winning at the U.S. Supreme Court, was caught “flat-footed” by state ballot measures that have protected the right, suggesting the movement needed to change its tactics.
US Senator Tim Scott argued that a majority of Americans would support a 15-week abortion limit, and challenged DeSantis and Haley to move toward a federal ban.
“It is in the best interest of our nation,” he said.
The lack of consensus at the debate stage made it clear that the issue of abortion will present a major challenge to the eventual candidate.
HALEY AND DESANTIS GO HEAD-TO-HEAD ON CHINA
All eyes were on Haley and DeSantis, who were widely expected to go after each other in an attempt to establish themselves as the main challenger to Trump in the Republican nomination contest.
After circling each other for half of the debate, they finally went on the attack over the other’s relationship with China.
Both said their opponent had cozyed up to Chinese industry as governors — Haley in South Carolina and DeSantis in Florida. Both unsurprisingly disagreed, leading to a heated exchange.
While all the candidates on stage portrayed themselves as tough on China, Haley has been working for months to establish herself as the best China hawk in the field.
The DeSantis campaign, meanwhile, has sought to attack Haley on that issue, accusing her of welcoming a Chinese company into her home state.
RAMASWAMY COMES OUT SWINGING, HALEY CALLS HIM ‘SCUM’
It was clear from the start that Ramaswamy, whose candidacy has faded since the first debate, was determined to be a spoiler, throwing elbows in every direction while on stage.
Ramaswamy, who has no political experience, attacked Haley and DeSantis right out of the gate.
In an exchange about the Israel-Hamas conflict, Ramaswamy warned that the two leading candidates on stage could drag America into a bloody war in Europe, while also channeling speculation that DeSantis carries elevators inside his boots.
“You want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels? Because you’ve got two of them on stage tonight,” he said, referring to Haley and DeSantis, invoking the Republican former vice president known for his neoconservative views.
“They’re five-inch heels and I don’t wear them unless I can run in them,” Haley later shot back. “They’re not a fashion statement, they’re ammunition.”
Ramaswamy wasn’t done going after Haley. During a discussion about banning the Chinese short video app TikTok, he mentioned that Haley’s daughter used the platform. “You might want to take care of your family first,” he said, eliciting gasps and groans from the audience.
“Keep my daughter out of your voice,” Haley replied, adding under her breath, “You’re just scum.”
Given his lagging poll numbers, the Miami debate could end up being Ramaswamy’s last. Haley won’t miss him.
Reporting by James Oliphant in Miami, Gram Slattery in Washington and Nathan Layne in Hialeah Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Deepa Babington
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