For a brief moment, the third Republican debate had a distinctive feel from the first two.
Rather than sidestepping direct attacks on former President Donald Trump, the candidates went directly after him.
But it didn’t last long. By the midpoint, those on stage were at each other’s throats, launching broadsides on political, policy and even personal matters. Candidates’ kids were not off limits, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s daughter’s use of TikTok coming under fire.
Nor was the debate moderator, or the head of the Republican National Committee.
“We’ve become a party of losers,” declared biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who had pledged, earlier in the night, that he would be “unhinged” on the debate stage. He called on RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel to resign.
The fireworks were notable both for their ferocity and their aim. At various moments, there was genuine debate, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Haley clearly gunning at each other for the second spot in the field. Haley, at one point, waited through a commercial break to respond to an attack that the Florida governor had made about her willingness to deal with Chinese businesses when she was governor of South Carolina.
But those back and forths also exposed the fundamental squeeze that the candidates find themselves in. They’re fighting among themselves as the frontrunner was ten miles away at a rally of his own. Trump’s overwhelming lead in the polls has provided him the luxury of not having to worry about any harm he might endure from not showing. Wednesday night felt like it could be different, but mostly for a moment.
Below are highlights of Wednesday’s debate.
Republicans grapple with abortion
Republicans faced a string of losses across the country Tuesday night, with the party again being run over by voters still angry about the Supreme Court overturning Roe over a year and a half ago. The candidates, however, didn’t address how the party should handle abortion rights until the last 20 minutes of the debate, and largely reiterated their previous positions.
Haley signaled that she believed this issue would largely be one left to the states. “When you look post-Roe, they took it out of the hands of unelected justices and put it in the hands of the people and now we’re seeing states vote,” she said. “As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice. And I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-choice.”
Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) also had a brief back-and-forth on the practicality of a 15-week federal ban on abortion.
“No Republican president is going to ban abortions,” she said, pointing to the fact that such a bill would need 60 Senate votes.
Haley doubles down on entitlement reform
Haley again called for reforming Social Security and other entitlement programs, drawing a contrast with Trump — and bringing up what Democrats say is a significant vulnerability for her candidacy.
“Any candidate that tells you that they’re not going to take on entitlements is not being serious,” she said. “Right now you have Ron and Trump joining Biden and Pelosi saying they’re not going to change, or do any entitlement reform.”
Haley has long called for making significant changes to the program, including raising the retirement age and removing cost of living increases in favor of increases based on the inflation rate.
She also called for limiting the program for the wealthy — namechecking Bernie Marcus, the former CEO of Home Depot and a major Republican donor, saying that he “hates getting that check.”
Haley goes after DeSantis on China
The intensifying rivalry between DeSantis and Haley finally spilled onto the stage as each accused the other of being too friendly to China.
DeSantis dug at Haley for letting China acquire land in South Carolina during her tenure as governor. Ramaswamy piled on, calling out Haley’s “tough talk” on China by saying she called China “our great friend” while serving as U.N. ambassador.
Haley tried to interject and defend herself, but the moderators wouldn’t let her. After waiting a full commercial break, she got her chance. Yes, she brought a fiberglass company to South Carolina a decade ago. But then she turned the tables on DeSantis, claiming that a report that had talked about Chinese business opportunities in Florida was recently scrubbed from a government website, referencing a report by The Messenger.
The governor smirked next to her.
‘You’re just scum’
The debate took a pretty nasty turn when the topic shifted to TikTok and whether it should be banned in the U.S. because of its Chinese ownership. Ramaswamy accused Haley of hypocrisy for criticizing him for being on the platform when her daughter is as well.
“In the last debate, [Haley] made fun of me for actually joining TikTok,” Ramaswamy said. “Her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time.”
“You’re just scum,” Haley replied.
DeSantis says it’s time to end the Ukraine war
The Florida governor went further than many Republicans tonight, saying flat out he wants the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to come to an end.
“We need to bring this war to an end,” said DeSantis.
The U.S. needs to focus more on other priorities, including the southern border, he added. “We need the Europeans to step up and do their fair share, and we need to get serious about this threat this country faces, which is the Chinese communist party.”
Scott not clear on Ukraine funding
Scott declined to directly commit to sending more funding to Ukraine, focusing instead on the need to assure “accountability” for the money sent to the country. But the South Carolina Republican also insisted he supports Ukraine in its fight against Russia — casting the American interest in the topic as being about destroying Russia’s military.
The seemingly contradictory approach was likely a nod to growing discomfort among Republican voters with the billions being spent to aid Ukraine. But it wasn’t shared by others on stage.
Haley warned that isolationists in the GOP ranks would not stop at leaving Ukraine isolated but would soon do the same for Israel, too.
“America can never be so arrogant to think we don’t need friends,” she said.
After her, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie compared the current moment to the lead up to World War II. He also used the moment to tie Ukraine’s fight to Iran, which has been backing Russia in the war.
Ramaswamy came after Haley, the only woman on the debate stage tonight, describing her as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”
Haley fired back saying her heels are actually five inches and are “for ammunition.” The comments also dig at DeSantis, who is rumored to be wearing lifted boots.
Much love for Netanyahu
The GOP candidates had one basic message for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Do what you have to do to destroy the Hamas militant group.
“Finish the job,” DeSantis said. “Finish them,” Haley said. “Not only do you have the responsibility and the right to wipe Hamas off of the map, we will support you,” Scott said.
Each had harsh words for Iran as well, including Scott calling for strikes on the country, which is a major patron of Hamas.
The one candidate who was reading from a different script was Ramaswamy, who said he would “avoid making the mistakes of the neocon establishment of the past” by “fighting wars that sent thousands of our sons and daughters” to die.
Ramaswamy goes off on RNC Chair
Ramaswamy, who had promised earlier in the night that he would “be unhinged” at the debate, came out swinging in his first answer, going after McDaniel — and the media.
“I am upset about what happened last night. We’ve become a party of losers,” he said, laying the blame at the feet of McDaniel. “Ronna, if you want to come on stage tonight, you want to look the GOP voters in the eye and tell them you’ll resign, I’ll turn over and yield my time to you.”
Ramaswamy then criticized McDaniel for having the RNC partnering with NBC News — a mainstream media outlet — to host the debate instead of a conservative outlet. He tried to goad NBC’s Kristen Welker into defending the network’s reporting in 2016 and 2020.
She ignored him.
DeSantis: ‘I’m sick of Republicans losing’
One night after Republicans suffered losses in Kentucky and Virginia on election night, DeSantis opened the debate saying Trump promised Republicans “were going to get tired of winning” but he’s getting “sick of Republicans losing.”
Instead, DeSantis argued, he “showed how it’s done” in Florida, where he won reelection last year in a landslide.
“Donald Trump’s a different guy than he was in 2016,” DeSantis said. “He owes it to you to stand on this stage … and explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. And he should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp.”
The attack was a notable departure from past debates where DeSantis was reluctant to go hard after Trump. Soon enough, Haley joined the pile on. Trump, she said, “was the right president at the right time. I don’t think he is the right president now.”
The sleepy scene outside the GOP debate
The scene outside of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the site of tonight’s Republican presidential debate, was pretty much dead; a reflection, perhaps, of the lack of drama that has come to define these forums where Trump doesn’t participate.
No protesters held signs. No crush of onlookers were there gawking for a glimpse of the who’s who making their way to a venue.
Ten miles away, the undisputed frontrunner was hosting a rally, giving the actual debate a type of undercard feel to it. But if the RNC had complaints that the media gaze was on Trump, that might have been partially their own fault. The media filing center Wednesday evening was a half-mile away from the debate site.
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