By James Oliphant and Joseph Ax
MIAMI (Reuters) -For the third time, Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination took to the debate stage on Wednesday night in his absence, seeking a way to dislodge the former president from his commanding lead in opinion polls.
While contenders such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley briefly criticized Trump, the latest episode did not appear any likelier to alter the dynamics of a race that Trump has dominated for months.
The candidates spent much of the two-hour event assailing one another as they strove to emerge as Trump’s chief opponent with less than 10 weeks before the first statewide nominating contest in Iowa. They will have another opportunity on Dec. 6, when a fourth debate will take place in Alabama.
For his part, Trump held a rival event nearby, where he mocked the participants and demanded that the Republican Party stop “wasting time” with “unwatchable” debates.
With only five candidates qualifying for the stage – DeSantis and Haley were joined by U.S. Senator Tim Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – it was less chaotic than previous encounters.
But it still had its share of cutting exchanges.
At one point during a discussion about whether to ban TikTok, Ramaswamy noted that Haley’s daughter had used the app, prompting Haley to warn him angrily not to mention her daughter again.
“You’re just scum,” she muttered.
Haley, who also served as South Carolina governor, and DeSantis, who has been in a distant second place behind Trump for most of the campaign, had their own clash over which governor had been too welcoming to Chinese investment.
Recent polls have shown the two jockeying for second place in early voting states.
Most of the candidates voiced support for banning TikTok, owned by a Chinese company, over national security concerns – even Ramaswamy, who has defended using the app as a way to connect with young Republican voters.
The debate opened with moderators asking the candidates to explain why they should be the party’s standard-bearer rather than Trump, giving them a chance to make their case directly to voters watching at home.
DeSantis criticized Trump for skipping the event, which took place in their shared home state of Florida, and suggested that the party’s poor showing in Tuesday’s off-year elections should be laid at Trump’s feet.
“He said Republicans were gonna get tired of winning,” DeSantis said. “Well, we saw last night – I’m sick of Republicans losing!”
Haley offered a more muted critique.
“Everybody wants to talk about President Trump. I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time,” she said. “I don’t think he’s the right president now.”
Trump, 77, has done his best to deny his rivals a direct target, instead focusing on what he expects to be a rematch with Biden, 80, on Nov. 5, 2024.
As Wednesday’s debate proceeded, the candidates largely avoided attacking Trump, whose hold on Republican voters has proven unshakable even in the face of his multiple indictments.
Instead, they trained their fire on Democratic President Joe Biden, particularly during a lengthy segment on foreign policy and the Israel-Hamas conflict. The Republicans all pledged unconditional support for Israel and assailed Biden’s handling of the crisis.
Asked what message they would send to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, DeSantis said, “I will be telling Bibi, ‘Finish the job once and for all with these butchers Hamas, they’re terrorists,'” using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Haley, who has staked much of her candidacy on her foreign policy credentials, faulted Biden for pressing Israel to consider humanitarian pauses.
“The last thing we need to do is to tell Israel what to do,” she said. “The only thing we should be doing is supporting them and eliminating Hamas.”
In addition to pushing for a more muscular response abroad, the candidates vowed to punish Hamas sympathizers at home.
DeSantis, for instance, promised to deport any students who expressed support for Hamas.
“If you are here on a student visa as a foreign national and you’re making common cause with Hamas, I’m canceling your visa and I’m sending you home,” he said. “No questions asked.”
A day after Democrats and abortion rights groups swept to victory in several state elections, the Republicans sought to formulate a winning message on an issue that has bedeviled the party since the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court last year eliminated a nationwide right to abortion.
Scott said he would support a federal 15-week ban, while Haley noted that any such legislation has essentially no chance of passing the closely divided U.S. Senate. DeSantis – who signed a six-week ban into law this year – did not address a federal law but said he stood for a “culture of life.”
The candidates attacked Biden over his stewardship of the economy, arguing that his focus on climate change had slowed growth. Haley and Christie said they would raise the retirement age for Social Security benefits for younger workers to help keep the program solvent, while Scott and DeSantis said they would not do so.
Polls show voters are unhappy with Biden’s economic record, despite the fact that inflation has slowed considerably and fears of a recession have faded amid continued economic growth. Biden’s approval rating slipped under 40% in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, his lowest mark since April.
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Miami, Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Tim Reid in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Eric Beech, Nathan Layne, Gram Slattery, Jasper Ward and Caitlin Webber; editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)