Takeaways from third GOP presidential debate

Five Republican White House candidates faced off in Miami on Wednesday in the third GOP presidential debate, a day after the party suffered losses in states like Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramasamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R) qualified for the Miami stage — a narrower field than the previous two debates as the party approaches the kickoff of 2024 voting in January. 

The candidates clashed on stage as they scramble to get closer to former President Trump, who holds a substantial lead over the rest of the field. Trump skipped the event once again and held a rally as counter-programming. 

Here are five takeaways from the third GOP presidential debate:

Haley seen as a threat

Haley fielded numerous attacks throughout the night, underscoring her perceived strength among the non-Trump Republicans running for president.

She sparred with DeSantis, long seen as Trump’s most competitive rival, and, in some of the night’s most memorable moments, drew direct attacks from Ramaswamy. At one point, she called the entrepreneur “scum” for making a comment about her daughter.

The attacks weren’t surprising. Haley has been on the rise since the first debate back in August, and she has sought to keep up that momentum as she looks to knock DeSantis from his second-place perch.

Even Trump has taken notice, knocking her in the aftermath of the second debate. She has seen only more positive polling in the weeks leading up to Wednesday night’s event, making her a top target for her fellow competitors.

Haley argued in a memo over the weekend that she’s now the “only viable” Trump alternative. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found Haley beating Biden in six battleground states in a hypothetical matchup. 

Clear divisions on foreign policy

The candidates’ divisions on foreign policy were on full display as they fielded questions about Ukraine, China and Israel. 

Haley and Christie emphatically backed Ukraine in its war against Russia, stressing that the U.S. should protect its allies — while Ramaswamy and DeSantis criticized continued U.S. support for Kyiv amid the ongoing war. Scott stood more to the middle. 

DeSantis said that “we need to bring this war to an end.” Ramaswamy appeared to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “Nazi,” though his campaign later sought to clarify that he was not referring to the Kyiv leader with the comment.  

Haley and DeSantis also sparred over China, and the candidates clashed over concerns about the video-sharing app TikTok, which has been the subject of worries about its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance.

The contenders all appeared to back Israel in the aftermath of a deadly attack by the militant group Hamas last month, which prompted Israeli counterattacks and resulted in ongoing conflict in the region. Haley said Israel should “finish” Hamas. 

Ramaswamy gets personal with Haley

Early in the two-hour program, Ramaswamy lobbed a diss at Haley, calling her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels” after a question about what the entrepreneur would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the country goes to war against Hamas. 

“Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” 

Haley quickly hit back. “First,” she said, “I’d like to say they are five-inch heels, and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” adding that the heels are not “a fashion statement; they’re for ammunition.”

It only got more heated from there.

While taking a swipe at the former UN ambassador regarding TikTok, Ramaswamy brought up her daughter. 

“In the last debate, she made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time,” he said. “So you might want to take care of your family first.”

“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley shot back, as boos could be heard from the audience. “You’re just scum,” she added. 

“You have her supporters propping her up, that’s fine,” Ramaswamy replied.

Ramaswamy clearly had it out for Haley, constantly pivoting to attack her throughout the night. And the former U.N. ambassador directed her own share of barbs toward him. At one point, she quipped that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are “salivating” at the thought of someone like Ramaswamy in the Oval Office. 

Unsurprisingly, the pair did not shake hands before they exited the debate stage.

Moderators do a good job

The third debate’s moderators — NBC News’s Lester Holt and Kristen Welker, alongside conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt — were largely successful in keeping the Republican contenders within the constraints of their questions. 

Moderators during the first two debates notably struggled to control the candidates as they spoke over each other — which is perhaps why the Miami event’s moderators were not shy about shutting down the candidates or the audience when necessary. 

“We ask the questions,” Welker said at one point, after Ramaswamy tried to ask Haley something. 

During one bout of applause from onlookers, Holt cautioned, “Audience, let’s not go down this road. We’ve asked you to please keep — restrain yourself … That would be helpful so we can hear the candidates.” 

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the trio. Ramaswamy at one point called out Holt and Welker, suggesting the event would have “10 times the viewership” if it were moderated instead by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk. 

Overall, though, they were able to generally keep the event on track throughout the night, even when things got testy between candidates like Haley and Ramaswamy.

Likely won’t move the needle on Trump

As strong as some of the candidates’ debate performances were, however, they couldn’t get past the reality that Trump has been dominating in virtually every state and national poll since the start of the race.

In fact, the Wednesday night event opened with a question about why the on-stage candidates should secure the GOP nomination over Trump, who was hosting a rally roughly 15 miles from where his Republican rivals were standing on stage.

Trump has skipped all the debates so far, citing his significant lead over the rest of the field. During his Wednesday night rally, he urged the GOP to “stop wasting time and resources” on candidates “that nobody wants,” seeming to reiterate his previous calls for the RNC to forego any future debates. 

In that opening segment of the debate, some of the candidates took the opportunity to hit Trump.

“He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance,” DeSantis said of the former president.

Haley said Trump “was the right president at the right time” but knocked him over the national debt and his foreign policy stances, saying, “I don’t think he’s the right president now.”

Still, it seems unlikely that the debate will move the needle enough to significantly cut into Trump’s frontrunner status, and some Republican strategists have shrugged at the events. 

Many in the party hope the primary field will narrow so that those Republicans seeking an alternative to Trump can rally around a single candidate. But it remains unclear if even that would be enough to defeat the former president for the nomination.

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