A smaller field of presidential candidates took the stage in Wednesday’s third Republican primary debate, where they were expected to focus on the Israel-Hamas war and try to make the case that they can cut into Donald Trump’s sizeable lead.
Trump, meanwhile, again skipped the debate, instead holding a rally not far from the Miami debate site. He refused to participate due to his large lead in national and early state polls.
With voting set to start in leadoff Iowa in January, no one has thus far been able to shake Trump’s dominance of the Republican primary. Many of the candidates have gone after each other hoping to break out as a viable alternative to the former president, emphasizing their differences on foreign policy but also ripping Trump for his criticisms of the Israeli prime minister and claims that a group attacking Israel was “very smart.”
Republican strategist David Kochel, who has advised several past presidential campaigns, said beforehand that despite Trump’s absence from the stage, the debate offers a chance for someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley to try to emerge as a strong alternative. “If this race does get much more quickly down to a two-person race,” Kochel said, “Who knows what the dynamic will be?”
So far, however, Trump has retained huge leads despite his efforts to try to overturn his 2020 election loss, his embrace of those jailed for storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and his facing four criminal indictments and a civil fraud case against his businesses for which he testified in New York this week. His campaign has worked to overpower DeSantis in their shared home state and publicly said it wants to score blowout wins in early primary states to seal the nomination.
The rivalry between DeSantis and Haley has ramped up in recent weeks, with Haley rising in a prominent Iowa poll and gaining new interest from donors and voters. Both campaigns and allied super PACs have hit each other over the war in Israel and the US relationship with China as Republicans take an increasingly antagonistic view of Beijing.
Both candidates have also diverged on abortion rights, a political challenge for Republicans since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Supporters of abortion rights claimed new momentum Tuesday after elections in several states went in their favour. In addition to DeSantis and Haley, also appearing on stage Wednesday were South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
The Republican candidates have been staunchly supportive of Israel in its offensive after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack killing more than 1,400 people.
DeSantis has used his official role as governor to show support for Israel, authorising the state to fly hundreds of Americans evacuated from Israel to the US, ordered state universities to disband chapters of a pro-Palestinian group, and arranged to help send weapons, ammunition and other supplies to Israel.
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Haley, also the former governor of South Carolina, has leaned into her experience as Trump’s UN ambassador arguing in support of the Israeli government.
Haley and DeSantis have also become more frequent and vocal critics of Trump in recent weeks.
The race’s overwhelming front-runner, meanwhile, was in a stadium about 10 miles away from the debate in the heavily Latino city of Hialeah. Trump’s campaign has suggested the Republican National Committee should stop having debates and instead focus on supporting his campaign. Top advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita raised Trump’s debunked claims of election fraud and said that if the party does not cancel debates, it is “an admission to the grassroots that their concerns about voter integrity are not taken seriously and national Republicans are more concerned about helping Joe Biden than ensuring a safe and secure election.”The RNC did not respond to a message seeking comment.