The 2024 Republican primary begins in two months, but many of the talking points that defined the 2016 and 2012 GOP nominating contests dominated the opening volleys of this campaign’s third debate.
There are five candidates onstage this time out in Miami, with two previous participants failing to qualify and former President Donald Trump again absent by choice.
But even as he misses out to host a rally in nearby Hialeah, Trump – or the idea of him – dominated the top of the hour, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave their elevator pitches for why Republican voters should deny Trump a third straight presidential nomination.
DeSantis and Haley have been locked in a tit-for-tat for much of the past month, but they offered broadly similar reasons for GOP voters to dump the former president. “Donald Trump is a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” DeSantis said, before ticking off failed promises – like getting Mexico to finance a border wall – from Trump’s first campaign.
Haley too, if more directly, contrasted the Trump of 2016 with the current front-runner for the GOP nomination.
“I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time,” said the woman who served as Trump’s top diplomat at the United Nations. “We can’t live in the past”
Vivek Ramaswamy began the debate by attacking the moderators and genuflecting to hyper-online mercurial billionaire Elon Musk, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott reached further back in history – Christie to his time leading the Garden State, which ended in January 2018, and Scott, as he so often does, insisting that “truth of my life destroys the lies of the radical left.”
From there, the debate took a hard turn to the multiple foreign policy crises dominating the headlines, from Israel to Ukraine and China.
Unsurprisingly, the candidates denounced antisemitism at home and abroad, uniformly pledged loyalty to Israel and backed its ongoing response to Hamas’ surprise attack last month. Only Ramaswamy suggested the US should not be providing material assistance to Israel, or any foreign government, as part of his isolationist worldview.
Trump – whose name all but disappeared from the debate after the first 15 minutes, when they were answering a question specifically about him – is spending the night about a half-hour away rallying Hispanic voters. He will undoubtedly deliver his verdict on the debate via social media in the coming hours, but there’s been little to trouble him so far.
Here are early takeaways from the third GOP primary debate:
On Israel’s war with Hamas, there was little disagreement between the five candidates. In fact, their answers were often quite similar.
“I’d be telling Bibi: Finish the job once and for all with these butchers,” DeSantis said, referring to the Israeli prime minister by his nickname.
But there were sharp divisions over whether the United States should continue to support Ukraine against Russia’s aggression.
Ramaswamy left no doubt where he stood, issuing a lengthy rebuke of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky while accusing the war-torn country of harboring Nazism and anti-democratic beliefs.
Haley, continuing to tussle with Ramaswamy onstage, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were “salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president.”
“Let’s remember, the last time that we turned our back on a shooting war in Europe,” Christie said. “It bought us just a couple of years. And then 500,000 Americans were killed in Europe to defeat Hitler. This is not a choice.”
DeSantis and Scott shifted the conversation from Ukraine to the US-Mexico border and left doubt as to whether they believe US support for the country should continue.
“We are not going to send your sons and daughters to Ukraine,” the Florida governor said. “I am going to send troops to our southern border.”
During the first debate, Ramaswamy called the other Republican candidates “super PAC puppets.” At last month’s Simi Valley, California event, he toned it down, calling them “good people tainted by a broken system.”
The question, then, was which version would show up in Miami: the quippy former debate kid or the dignified statesman? The answer was clear within minutes. The biotech entrepreneur came out swinging against the media, Haley, the debate moderators, the media, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, DeSantis and the Florida governor’s boots.
Basically, anyone but Trump was fair game.
Asked why voters should back him over Trump, Ramaswamy aired out a long list of grievances. First, he blamed McDaniel for the string of losses Republicans have suffered since 2017, when she was elected RNC chair (but also, notably, when Trump took office), and gave her the option to come onstage and resign. Then he blasted the decision to have NBC News’ Lester Holt and Kristin Welker host with Salem Radio’s Hugh Hewitt.
“Think about who’s moderating this debate — this should be Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk,” he said, before blasting the “corrupt media establishment.”
On Israel, Ramaswamy said he would encourage Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “smoke those terrorists on his southern border” while the presidential candidate would be “smoking the terrorists on our southern border.” Ramaswamy, who has sought to distinguish himself as an America First candidate in a field of “neocons,” then took a dig at Haley for her foreign policy. DeSantis, who has battled speculation over his boots, got caught in the crossfire.
“Do you want a leader of a different generation who’s going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” Ramaswamy said. “We’ve got two of them.”