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Third GOP debate: Five key takeaways

Another Trumpless debate poses the question: When does any of this start to matter?

John Bowden
Washington DC
Thursday 09 November 2023 10:12 GMT
Nikki Haley snubs Vivek Ramaswamy, shaking hands with every other GOP candidate

The third Republican primary debate was an ugly slugfest reminiscent of the earliest Trump debates of 2015 — except the former president wasn’t even there.

A group of five candidates, minus their party’s frontrunner, appeared onstage Wednesday evening in Miami for what was billed as a presidential debate but in the end may have just been an exercise in futility, given the continued dominance of Donald Trump in every available poll of the GOP primary.

What transpired over two hours served as a reminder of what Mr Trump has done to this party, and raised the question of whether his shadow will loom over Republicans long after he fades from relevance.

Let’s look at the main takeaways from Wednesday’s showdown:

1. Ramaswamy unleashed and ‘unhinged’

Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the third Republican candidates' U.S. presidential debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida (REUTERS)

Vivek Ramaswamy promised to be “unhinged”, and in that at least, he delivered. In droves.

The businessman and first-time candidate was eager to swipe at anyone onstage. He took a particular (and eyebrow-raising) interest in Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador and governor of South Carolina. His continues jabs at Ms Haley lost him the goodwill of the crowd, who erupted in murmurs when he mentioned her “heels” derisively and outright boos (the only set of the night) when he mentioned her daughter.

His other noteworthy attempts at picking a fight were also aimed at women. Kristin Welker, NBC’s moderator and Meet the Press host, only smiled when Mr Ramaswamy attempted to draw her into a back-and-forth on the Trump-Russia investigation during his opening remarks. He also demanded that Ronna Romney McDaniel, sitting in the front row, resign as chair of the Republican National Committee after he blamed her for a slate of GOP losses.

While Welker refused to take the bait, Ms Haley could not resist after the worst of Mr Ramaswamy’s comments towards her, and quipped at him in response: “You’re just scum.”

One possible reason for tonight’s mudslinging: Ms Haley just passed Mr Ramaswamy in polling averages, making the 38-year-old newcomer desperate to draw blood and make any impression for the cameras.

2. DeSantis and Haley brawl for second place

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis (AP)

Though the worst of the fireworks occurred between Mr Ramaswamy and Ms Haley, it was Ms Haley and Mr DeSantis whose conflict was the most important of the night.

The two are now jockeying for second place in the GOP nominating contest, though both remain well behind frontrunner Mr Trump. Ms Haley was eager to score points against her rival on the issue of energy production, interjecting “you banned fracking!” as Mr DeSantis defended protecting the Everglades from drilling.

"You're trying to make up for it and act like you weren't a liberal when it comes to the environment,” Ms Haley claimed, addressing Mr DeSantis. “Just own it if that's the case."

She also had a prepared attack ready on the issue of China, accusing Mr DeSantis’s team (correctly) of hastily scrubbing references to China from the website of a Florida-based economic development board after receiving criticism for working to attract Chinese businesses to his state.

3. Candidates greenlight Israel’s response to Hamas

One thing, and perhaps the only thing, that every candidate onstage had in common was a shared vision for Israel’s response to brutal terrorist attacks launched by Hamas last month.

While Democrats wrestle with whether the scale of Israel’s response is either effective or just given the number of civilians in Gaza being injured and killed by Israel’s military, Republicans have no such qualms and spent much of the first segment of Wednesday’s debate jumping over one another to condemn Hamas and call for the group’s destruction.

The assembled Republicans called on Israel to “finish” Hamas and destroy the group entirely, calling it an existential threat to Israel’s existence. Mr DeSantis also attacked Joe Biden for his statements denouncing Islamophobia in the wake of the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Illinois.

4. The elephant not in the room

Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Hialeah, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. (AP)

The main issue for the Republican pack of would-be runners-up remains unseating Mr Trump, and that means drawing blood and picking off the former president’s supporters. Unfortunately for Mr Trump’s rivals, there was little opportunity to do that, though not for lack of trying from NBC’s moderators.

Let’s put the evening in context: If you combined the polling averages of every candidate who appeared onstage tonight, Mr Trump would still be beating that hypothetical super-candidate by double digits. And that’s not even taking into account how many supporters of Mr Trump’s rivals see the former president as their second choice.

Nothing really matters unless something seriously changes in the overall dynamic in the race — the two-way split between “Donald Trump” and “everyone else” coming to an end. On Wednesday evening, we saw absolutely nothing that would move that dial more than a few points at most.

5. Culture wars take a back seat

Foreign policy took a front seat for much of the debate, as the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict and the war in Ukraine provoked a discussion about America’s role as a world leader, and what that tangibly means in terms of investments. Entitlement reform and energy policy were also on the table, with the latter devolving into accusations of being insufficiently pro-fracking and the former turning into an artful dance around the question of what America’s retirement age should be in 2023.

There was almost no mention of many of the social issues that have dominated conservative politics, especially on social media, for so long. Critical race theory was not given airtime, nor were transgender issues, save for a late-game nod from Tim Scott, who earned applause from the audience for declaring that kids should play sports in leagues restricted only to their sex at birth.

The abortion rights discussion did get its own segment, and once again here the candidates offered nothing resembling a consensus for the GOP beyond a vaguely pro-life stance. Republicans on the state were able to agree that the pro-life movement had been caught “flat-footed”, in Ron DeSantis’s words, by their opponents in Tuesday’s statewide elections in Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky, but on a path forward they remain deeply uncertain.

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