MIAMI– As they face the increasingly urgent task of emerging as a clear alternative to former President Donald Trump, five Republicans presidential The candidates gathered Wednesday for the party’s latest debate.
Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the race, skipped the event because he has the top two, citing his poll advantage. There was no shortage of notable confrontations on stage as participants debated the Israel-Hamas war, the future of abortion rights and Trump himself.
But with the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses approaching, it seemed unlikely that the debate would fundamentally change the battle for the presidential nomination.
Here are some takeaways from the debate:
The foreign policy debate
On Wednesday, the presidential candidates met on a debate stage for the first time since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, producing a sharper foreign policy discussion compared to previous forums.
The candidates agreed on strong support for Israel and decried anti-Semitism, particularly on liberal college campuses. But they said virtually nothing about protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
But Republicans’ familiar foreign policy divide resurfaced as markets focused on the war in Ukraine, the possibility of China confronting Taiwan and how to handle Venezuela’s oil market.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all took traditional Republican tones, supporting military aid to Ukraine, calling for significantly increased investment in the military and linking all global conflicts.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy tried to differentiate himself by claiming that the rest of the stage was part of a bipartisan foreign policy establishment that repeatedly fell into disaster in foreign wars. A long-time critic of Ukraine aid, he condemned anti-Semitism by calling the country’s Jewish president a “Nazi.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared to bridge the divide. At one point he dodged a question about Ukraine and China by talking about increasing security at the southern border and suggesting deporting immigrants from the Middle East.
The candidates all talked tough. But the partisan divide over the Ukraine war ran subtly throughout the night, and it’s not clear whether they would all behave the same way if they actually made it to the Oval Office.
Taking on Trump
All candidates are trying to overtake Trump, who is the dominant frontrunner in the primaries. But they spent most of the primary campaign avoiding any opportunity to take on the former president.
Things became more difficult in the first debate, which was moderated by a broadcaster that was not affiliated with the pro-Trump channel Fox News. NBC News anchors began by asking the candidates to explain why they – and not Trump – should be the Republican nominee.
There was little clear exchange against Trump, who remains popular with the GOP base and hosted a rival event on Wednesday. But DeSantis was the most forceful.
“Donald Trump is a very different guy than he was in 2016,” he said, explaining that Trump owes it to Republican primary voters to show up and explain his record.
But even DeSantis’ strong words lasted less than 30 seconds. And he stopped short of questioning Trump’s “balls” for skipping the debate, as he has done in recent days.
The other candidates were less aggressive.
When asked why he was a better candidate than Trump, Ramaswamy even went so far as to blame Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel — and not Trump — for the GOP’s repeated defeats in national elections since Trump took the presidency in 2016 had won.
When asked about Trump, Haley casually mentioned the national debt that had accumulated under his leadership. Scott said the GOP needs to win over independent voters. Christie dedicated a sentence to highlighting Trump’s legal troubles.
The lack of targeted attacks against Trump may illustrate how difficult it is to attack someone who is not on stage. But his rivals didn’t make any effort either. Wednesday’s debate is the latest example of why Trump may have been wise to skip the debates altogether.
The feud between Ramaswamy and Haley
There were five candidates on the debate stage, but the vendetta between two of them stood out: Haley and Ramaswamy.
The two children of Indian immigrants had clashed in previous debates. But the tension heightened on Wednesday evening when Ramaswamy played the role of attacker with relish. He initially took several swipes at Haley – at one point calling her and DeSantis “Cheney in 3-inch heels,” a reference to controversial former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz, a congresswoman who left the Republican Party for her criticism of Trump Party was excommunicated.
But it wasn’t until midway through the debate, when Haley said she would respond to Ramaswamy’s allegations rather than a question about banning Tik-Tok, that Ramaswamy made his most shocking attack.
Noting that Haley hadn’t answered the question, Ramaswamy said, “Your own daughter has been using the app for a long time, so maybe you should take care of your daughter first.”
Haley responded by urging Ramaswamy to “leave my daughter out of your voice.” She later said, “You’re just scum.”
Ramaswamy dominated all three debates with his combative style. It hasn’t necessarily helped him politically – his vitriolic attacks seem to be turning off voters – but it’s drowning out all the other candidates. He’s also clearly gotten under the skin of his rivals, who spend valuable time pursuing him.
Ramaswamy has even less chance of winning than the rest of the very distant field, and every debate he dominates is another missed opportunity for everyone to change the course of the GOP primary.
A way forward abortion
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republicans have had no answers on the issue of abortion. In election after election, including several this week, Democrats have used the issue to their advantage.
On Wednesday night, Haley, the only woman on stage, tried to show her party a path forward for addressing the thorny political issue.
Haley’s approach was decidedly gentler and more personal than what the men on stage offered.
“I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” she said, indicating that she respects states’ decisions to protect abortion rights. even if she didn’t. I don’t agree with them.
And she made clear that without 60 votes in the Senate, the next Republican president would not be able to enact a nationwide abortion ban, which is not in the cards. Instead, she suggested Republicans in Washington should push for what’s possible: a ban on late-term abortions, policies that encourage adoption and greater accessibility to contraceptives.
“Let’s focus on how we can save as many babies as possible and support as many mothers as possible and stop the verdict. We no longer need to divide America on this issue,” Haley said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Meanwhile, the men on stage delivered more of the same message that failed to resonate with voters in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania earlier in the week.
DeSantis attacked Democrats for supporting unlimited abortions. Scott joined the criticism, saying it was “unethical and immoral” to allow abortions up to the day of birth.
Haley’s message may be popular with some suburban women, a group the GOP struggled with in recent elections, but she clearly disagrees with many activists who make up the Republican base. Still, her response Wednesday night is a reminder of why some Democratic officials fear her more than any other candidate as a possible Biden opponent.
The race for second place
After two more hours in which the likely competitors also argued over mostly small differences of opinion, it seems clear that the Republican presidential election campaign is all about coming in second by a distance.
Nobody is remotely close to Trump and nobody is trying to catch him. Instead, the candidates appear to be arguing about who can be the best alternative to him should the unthinkable happen that the four-time indicted, constitutionally challenged, 77-year-old leading candidate is thrown out of the race.
Even Christie, whose entire campaign rested on him being the only Republican brave enough to attack the former president, remained silent on Trump unless the moderators asked him about him.
It is now clear that no one sees a path to actual victory in the primary. Instead, everyone acts as if their best chance is that the alternate universe of debates, in which Trump isn’t even on the stage, somehow becomes a reality for Republican voters.
This is the only way these debates can still be important. But one thing we’ve learned in the Trump era is that you can never tell what will happen next.