MIAMI, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 08: Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) are introduced during the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on November 8, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Five presidential hopefuls squared off in the third Republican primary debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined again to participate. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Five Republican candidates for president tussled over support for Ukraine and abortion policy at a debate in Miami Wednesday evening, while the leading contender for the nomination, former President Donald Trump, sought Latino votes in an event across town.
Trump, who consistently garners more than 50% in polls of Republican voters, once again declined to participate in what was the third debate of the primary race, holding his own rally in nearby Hialeah instead.
That left five candidates, the fewest of any GOP debate so far this cycle, vying to be the lead alternative to the former president in the two-hour debate aired by NBC News. The moderators were the network’s Lester Holt and Kristen Welker, joined by Salem Radio Network’s conservative host Hugh Hewitt.
The candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — largely agreed that the United States should support Israel’s war against Hamas, calling for aggressive action from the key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
But they showed sharp divisions on other issues, highlighted by a growing rift between DeSantis and Haley, whose position in the race has improved in recent weeks largely at the expense of the home-state governor, and a continuing quarrel between Haley and Ramaswamy that descended into personal attacks.
At one point, as each accused the other of being too friendly to China, Ramaswamy pointed out Haley’s daughter has an account on Chinese-owned TikTok. “You might want to take care of your family first,” he said.
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley responded, adding, “You’re just scum.”
On abortion, all of the candidates declared themselves against abortion rights. But the day after Republicans saw setbacks in state elections where abortion rights were central issues, Haley, Christie and DeSantis said the question would largely be left to states. Scott said he’d support a national ban.
In Hialeah, Trump focused his attention on Biden and Democrats — comparing the current administration to regimes in communist-led countries.
“If you don’t want to let the communists destroy America like they destroyed Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and so many other countries, you need to send the message by voting crooked Joe Biden … and every last Democrat, get them the hell out of office,” Trump told the crowd.
Trump’s shadow looms
In the first round of the questions, candidates were asked why GOP voters should support them over the race’s frontrunner.
DeSantis launched into a short stump speech that touched on inflation and border security.
He then criticized Trump for not appearing at the debates and said Republicans were losing elections with Trump as the most recognizable leader in the party.
“Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” he said. “He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance. He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp.”
Haley said Trump performed well as president, but that new leaders should address new challenges.
“He was the right president at the right time,” she said. “I don’t think he’s the right president now.”
Haley also criticized Trump for allowing the national debt to grow and said he “used to be right about Ukraine and foreign issues. now he’s gotten weak in the knees.”
Christie continued strong criticism of the former president, a consistent message in a campaign that has struggled to gain traction with a GOP electorate still largely loyal to Trump, who is facing criminal indictments in four cases.
“Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country,” Christie said.
At the Trump rally 15 miles away, the crowd cheered when the former president asked if it was the right decision to not participate in the debates.
“Somebody said, one of those dumber ones, ‘He doesn’t have the courage to stand up’ – Well, listen, I’m standing in front of tens of thousands of people right now, and it’s on television,” Trump said. “That’s a hell of a lot harder to do than a debate.”
The former president said he didn’t know who the “best” other Republican presidential candidate was, but said he liked “one of them” — referring to Ramaswamy.
“One of them said … on the stage – that, ‘President Trump is the greatest president in many generations,’” Trump said, referring to a past debate. “I sort of like him. … I mean, how can I dislike him? He’s so nice.”
He said he thought it was “okay” that Ramaswamy said he is running for president because he’s a younger version of Trump, but that “we want the older version, right?”
He briefly called out DeSantis by name, claiming the Florida governor only won his reelection campaign because of Trump’s endorsement.
Israel center stage
Debating for the first time since the Israel-Hamas war began Oct. 7, the candidates spent more time on foreign policy Wednesday.
All five used harsh language to describe what they would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I will be telling Bibi: Finish the job once and for all with these butchers,” DeSantis said. “They’re terrorists. They’re massacring innocent people.”
The other candidates also called for Israel to destroy Hamas and criticized calls for a ceasefire, with Haley also dismissing even a temporary cessation of fighting to allow for humanitarian aid.
But differences emerged on Ukraine’s war with Russia.
Scott said he has supported Ukraine’s war effort, but said an aid package for both Israel and Ukraine, as President Joe Biden has proposed, was the wrong approach.
“We need to focus specifically on providing Israel with the $14 billion that they need so that we show the world that we are 100% undeniably standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel,” he said.
Aid to Ukraine, he said, should be conditioned on a higher degree of accountability “to understand where the resources have gone.”
As he has been since the start of the race, Ramaswamy was the most explicitly pro-Russia, criticizing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and saying the regions of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded last year are culturally Russian.
“To frame this as some kind of battle between good versus evil: Don’t buy it,” he said.
He called Haley “the sharpest of the war hawks on Ukraine” who should be held accountable for her position.
Haley responded that Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old with no government experience, was naive about world affairs.
“I’m telling you, Putin and (Chinese) President Xi (Jinping) are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president,” she said.
Ramaswamy also said that U.S. troops should be sent to the border with Mexico.
“We will use our own military to seal our own Southern border,” he said. “What we need to do is stop using our military to protect somebody else’s border halfway around the world, when we’re short right here at home.”
The debate came a day after an Election Day that highlighted Republicans’ weakness on abortion rights, an issue that has remained salient in the nearly 18 months since the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection in heavily Republican Kentucky. Democrats in Virginia ran on a pro-abortion-rights message to win both chambers of the General Assembly and Ohio voters approved a measure to protect abortion rights in the state constitution.
All candidates said they were opposed to abortion, but, with Scott as a notable exception, most de-emphasized the role of the federal government and the president.
Scott called himself “100% pro-life,” and said as president he would enact a 15-week national ban.
Haley said she would sign any bill to limit abortion rights, but that it was not realistic to make such promises because a federal bill would have to get 60 votes in a U.S. Senate currently controlled by Democrats.
Instead, she said, abortion opponents should work with abortion rights supporters to find consensus on issues to expand access to contraception and adoption.
DeSantis said Republicans had to better contest ballot measures at the state level.
Christie said conservatives have long called for the issue to be decided on a state level, which he said was consistent with the foundations of U.S. democracy.
“The founders were really smart,” he said. “And this is an issue that should be decided in each state. I trust the people of this country, state-by-state, to make the call for themselves.”
Ramaswamy said it would take a “different generation of leadership to actually lead us forward and unite the country on this.”
Haley clashes with DeSantis, Ramaswamy
Haley, running third in most polls behind Trump and DeSantis, trained much of her rhetoric on the only candidate on stage ahead of her.
She said she would end formal trade relations with China until fentanyl was better controlled and noted DeSantis had not taken that position.
DeSantis criticized Haley for, as South Carolina governor, trying to lure Chinese companies to the state.
“She welcomed them into South Carolina, gave them land near a military base, wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter saying what a great friend they were,” he said. “That was like their number one way to do economic development.”
Haley said relations with China have worsened in the 10 years since she sought economic development from the country.
She added that as governor, DeSantis has much more recently tried to bring Chinese companies to his state.
She also attacked DeSantis’ record opposing fracking in Florida. DeSantis’ presidential campaign supports fracking, a controversial part of extracting natural gas, but he has opposed it in Florida. DeSantis said Wednesday he only opposed fracking in the Everglades, but analysis has shown he campaigned on a broader objection.
Ramaswamy, whose isolationist foreign policy has been a central part of his campaign, referred to neoconservatives in the Republican Party who resembled “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels,” apparently referring to both Haley and DeSantis.
DeSantis didn’t respond to the dig, but Haley later said that her heels were “for ammunition.”
Trump holds separate rally
Trump took the stage in Hialeah, 15 miles away from the debate, his campaign declaring Florida is “Trump County.”
Trump called for supporters to help him win the Florida primary “for the third straight time.” Though the event coincided with the GOP presidential debate, Trump spent most of his time criticizing Biden.
He repeated false claims that Biden and Democrats “cheated” in the 2020 general election, and said that he is often asked by supporters if he expects Biden to try to “cheat again.”
“The radical left Democrats rigged the presidential election of 2020 and we’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election of 2024,” Trump said.
He said that Biden could not win a fair election, saying voters will not support a candidate whose presidency led to high inflation, international conflicts and “open borders.”
While Trump said he believed he could win in a rematch against Biden, he also claimed that the upcoming presidential election is the last chance to prevent his political opponents from permanently seizing power.
“This election will decide whether power in America belongs to them forever, or whether it belongs to you, the men and women who make this country great, who make this country run,” Trump told the crowd. “2024 is our final battle. Stand with me in the fight.”
Biden’s campaign spokesperson Ammar Moussa released a statement Wednesday saying that Trump continues to lie about the 2020 election “rather than admit he lost — like an adult.”
“It would be sad, if it weren’t so dangerous,” Moussa said. “… The dangerous and erratic ramblings of a loser who can’t admit defeat only underscore that Donald Trump is not fit to be president of the United States.”
Trump highlights Sanders endorsement
While he briefly criticized DeSantis, Trump also highlighted another Republican governor supporting his campaign: Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Sanders, who served Trump as press secretary, endorsed her former boss Monday, and told the Florida crowd to help him return to the White House “because our country has never needed Donald Trump more than we do right now.”
Sanders said she faced countless attacks and “mean tweets” during her time as press secretary and governor — and that Trump has also faced constant criticism and scrutiny.
“I know that a lot of people may complain that President Trump was too loud, too disruptive, and sometimes even a little too direct,” Sanders said. “But to me, that’s the very best thing about this president. He tells it like it is.”
Sanders was not the only endorser Trump highlighted at the Florida event — he thanked comedian Roseanne Barr and rapper Lil Pump for their support while on stage. He also thanked Florida Republicans who endorsed him. The crowd booed when he thanked U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Republican who voted against U.S. GOP Rep. Jim Jordan for House speaker.
“Oh, you don’t like him?” Trump asked. “What’s going on? Carlos! Come on now. Well, you got to get that straightened out.”
The mayor of Hialeah, Esteban Bovo, joined Trump on stage. He thanked Trump for holding an event in the city, and said that he plans to ask the Hialeah city council to authorize naming a street after Trump — holding up a road sign of “President Donald J. Trump Avenue” on stage.
“That’s an honor, great honor,” Trump said. “I did not know that. Thank you very much.”
Thousands attended the event in South Florida, which political analysts say was a strategic location to appeal to Florida Latino voters, including many Cuban Americans. In the most recent census, 95% of Hialeah residents identified as Hispanic or Latino.
Trump told the crowd Biden and Democrats were turning the U.S. into “communist Cuba.”
“We have some great Cubans here,” Trump said. “And nobody ever did more for Americans who love Cuba than a gentleman named Donald J. Trump when he was president.”
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