By James Oliphant and Gram Slattery
MIAMI (Reuters) -Five candidates seeking to halt Donald Trump’s march toward 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 takeaways from the debate:
A RACE FOR SECOND PLACE
It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that the biggest winner at Wednesday’s debate was Trump.
While he held a raucous rally with thousands of cheering supporters at a stadium 10 miles away from the debate hall, the Republican candidates on stage left the party’s frontrunner largely unscathed.
Trump was barely mentioned in the two-hour debate, either by the candidates or moderators, and when he was, it was largely in anodyne statements by candidates such as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley saying 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 he would be convicted in one of four criminal trials he is defending himself in.
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 at the debate.
“I’m standing in front of tens of thousands of people right now, and it’s on television,” he said. “That’s a hell of a lot harder to do than a debate.”
For Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, both of whom needed a strong night to argue they are the party’s top alternative to Trump, the omission cost them the opportunity to make a lasting and affirmative case on why Trump is unfit to be the Republican nominee. Instead, they seemed to be playing for second place.
Fittingly, when given a final minute to make their pitches and sum up their candidacies, none of the five on stage mentioned the man they are all chasing. And there was nothing to suggest any one of them was about the close the gap.
A night after a stinging series of election losses at the hands of Democrats on Tuesday, the candidates vented their frustrations on the debate stage.
“I’m sick of Republicans losing,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis has long contrasted his successful re-election last year in Florida with Republican setbacks in the last few elections, including Trump’s loss in 2020. Earlier in the day, his campaign argued that backing Trump cost candidates seats in races such as the one for governor of Kentucky, where Republican Daniel Cameron lost to Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear.
Republicans on Wednesday were also smarting from the success of a ballot issue in Ohio that enshrined a 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 chair of the Republican National Committee, instead of Trump, for the party’s recent performance.
“We’ve become a party of losers,” he lamented. “We have to have accountability in our party.”
McDaniel was Trump’s hand-picked choice to lead the RNC in 2017, and the committee was a sponsor of Wednesday’s debate.
With Tuesday’s election results showing that abortion remains a toxic issue for Republicans, the candidates offered differing ideas on how to move forward.
Haley urged her party to be upfront with voters, acknowledging that some states will continue to permit the practice and that it was unlikely a federal ban could 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 Governor Chris Christie also argued that it was an issue best left to states. “I trust the people of this country, state by state, to make the call for themselves,” he said.
DeSantis said the anti-abortion movement, having succeeded in winning at the U.S. Supreme Court, was caught “flat-footed” by state ballot measures that have protected the right, suggesting that the movement needed to modify its tactics.
U.S. Senator Tim Scott contended that a majority of Americans would support a 15-week abortion limit, and challenged DeSantis and Haley to move toward a federal ban.
“It’s in our nation’s best interest,” he said.
The lack of consensus on the debate stage made clear that the issue of abortion will offer a major challenge for the eventual nominee.
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 a bid to establish themselves as the top challenger to Trump in the Republican nominating contest.
After circling each other for half the debate, they finally went on the attack over the other’s dealings with China.
Both said their opponent had cozied up to Chinese industry as governors – Haley in South Carolina and DeSantis in Florida. Both, unsurprisingly, disagreed, leading to a heated exchange.
While all candidates on the stage portrayed themselves as tough on China, Haley has taken pains for months to establish herself as the top China hawk in the field.
The DeSantis campaign, meanwhile, has tried 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 outset that Ramaswamy, whose candidacy has faded since the first debate, was determined to be a spoiler and throw 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 on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Ramaswamy warned that the two leading candidates on the stage could drag America into a bloody war in Europe, while also channeling speculation that DeSantis wears lifts inside his boots.
“Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels? Because you’ve got two of them on stage tonight,” he said in reference to Haley and DeSantis, while invoking the Republican former vice president who was 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 are not a fashion statement, they are ammunition.”
Ramaswamy wasn’t finished going after Haley. During a discussion over 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, prompting gasps and groans from the audience.
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley countered, adding under her breath, “You’re just scum.”
Given his lagging poll numbers, the Miami debate could end up being Ramaswamy’s final one. Haley won’t miss him.
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Miami, Gram Slattery in Washington and Nathan Layne in HialeahEditing by Colleen Jenkins and Deepa Babington)