A winnowing and still Trump-less field took to the stage for the third Republican presidential debate Wednesday night in Miami.
The five candidates qualifying and participating were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his emerging challenger for the top Donald Trump alternative, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, as well as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
Here are some winners and losers from the evening.
We keep putting him here, but his placement remains accurate. Trump’s lead has only continued to expand, and the candidates continue to be averse to even really attempting to lay a glove on him.
DeSantis and Haley did begin the debate by echoing past attacks on Trump for his record, including the expansion of the national debt on his watch and for not making Mexico pay for the border wall as he promised. Haley broke some ground by saying Trump had gotten “weak in the knees” on supporting Ukraine. Christie also singed Trump for allegedly not being tough enough on TikTok and China.
But Haley also felt the need to qualify her criticism. She began by saying Trump at least used to be “the right president at the right time” — despite criticizing his actual presidential record on the debt. When she invoked “weak in the knees,” she added that Trump was “trying to be friendly again.” It seemed as if it could be a shot at his being nice to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it wasn’t at all clear.
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Scott was given a chance to double down on saying Trump couldn’t win the general election. He punted in a moment somewhat reminiscent of Tim Pawlenty’s retreat on attacking Mitt Romney over “Obamneycare” when they were competing for the 2012 GOP nomination.
No, it wasn’t surprising that they would be so cautious. It’s been like that all race, and the candidates are obviously worried about alienating Trump’s supporters. But it hasn’t worked. And they still haven’t found the recipe for even subtly criticizing him in a way that lands.
Meanwhile, the smaller field seemed to invite more infighting between all of the candidates, mostly at the expense of the two leading Trump alternatives, DeSantis and Haley.
The party suffered another post-Roe v. Wade setback Tuesday, with red-leaning Ohio becoming the seventh straight state in which voters sided with abortion rights when the matter was put to them. The issue continues to vex the GOP, even as voters largely favor Republicans on other key issues.
And judging by the debate, the candidates, too, were at something of a loss. When asked to account for the string of losses, the candidates had little to offer and seemed to largely, if tacitly, grant that abortion rights would be here to stay.
DeSantis basically suggested that some states are going to handle this differently from others and that the party hasn’t waged this battle well.
“You’ve got to do a better job on these referenda,” DeSantis said, while adding that “a lot of the people who are voting for the referenda are Republicans who would vote for a Republican candidate. So you’ve got to understand how to do that.”
Some candidates suggested the battle should focus more on what limits abortion rights supporters would actually support, but that’s been tried. Scott pushed a 15-week restriction, but that didn’t pan out too well in Virginia on Tuesday. And Haley kept the idea of a federal ban at arm’s length by citing how unrealistic it was to expect to get the votes for it in the Senate.
Christie suggested the party needed to focus on other “pro-life” issues such as helping drug addicts. Haley also seemed to push her party toward less of a hard-line position, saying everyone needed to “stop the judgment.” That in and of itself was remarkable in a party that has largely labeled abortion as tantamount to murder.
They all offered assurances that they are at least personally pro-life. But that seemed to be where the consensus stopped.
They weren’t terrible, but they didn’t do much to really change the race.
DeSantis’s opening statement was stilted and seemed to suggest a candidate who was running out of ideas. And the rest of the debate was little better than its uninspiring predecessors.
Haley, a strong debater in the first two forums, did largely okay. But her recent ascent meant she took attacks in a way she never has before — and at times seemed to let it get under her skin (which we’ll get to). A major focus of the debate was how much of a foreign policy hawk she is, which doesn’t really seem to be where the party’s activist base is right now.
Neither looked like someone who could seriously challenge Trump or even appeared all that likely to become the clear alternative, which seems to be the real prize right now.
Ramaswamy appears to have lost his moment in this race, to the extent he had one. And his response seemed to be to try way too hard to get attention. He even reportedly told ABC News before the debate that his plan was to be unhinged, which is quite the statement of intent.
At the start, he set about some rather predictable media-bashing (given NBC News was sponsoring the debate), asking debate moderator Kristen Welker a question (which is not how this works). He instead proposed, in a remarkable bit of pandering, having Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk and Joe Rogan moderate.
But nothing reeked of desperation quite as much as when he fumbled for a viral moment. He attacked Haley for her hawkish foreign policy and asked the audience whether it wanted “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”
You could have missed it, but it was actually intended to be about both Haley and DeSantis, whose boots have become an object of some fascination. Ramaswamy said there were “two of them onstage,” but it was muffled by the audience, which largely groaned. Apparently recognizing this, when Haley defended herself and said her heels were actually five inches, Ramaswamy again said there were “two of them onstage.”
Ramaswamy also invoked Haley’s daughter at one point, drawing her to offer a Will Smith-esque rebuke not to talk about her family and to call him “scum.”
His comments were obviously intended to troll — to tempt his critics to accuse him of sexism (perhaps that’s why he emphasized he was talking about DeSantis, too) and of going too far on a candidate’s family. But regardless, it was awkward and desperate. And it was more befitting a guy looking for a Fox News hosting gig than anything else.
One thing Ramaswamy also wagered would garner attention was something particularly unhelpful for the party’s leadership: a call for Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to resign. He offered her his own time onstage to do so.
And while certainly another plea for attention, it wasn’t based on nothing. Tuesday’s election was merely the latest disappointing one for the GOP during McDaniel’s six-year reign. In some ways, it’s a wonder she still leads the party.
“Since Ronna McDaniel took over as chairwoman of the RNC in 2017,” Ramaswamy said. “We have lost 2018, 2020, 2022, a red wave that never came. We got trounced last night in 2023.”
Others also pointed in this direction, albeit without singling her out. DeSantis began the debate by saying he was “sick of Republicans losing.” He also dinged his party for being “flat-footed” on abortion rights ballot measures since Roe was overturned.
Of course, less spoken was another major Republican figure who appears to have something to do with that recent poor track record: Trump.