Their clashes were largely between themselves, with relatively little time spent on the runaway front runner in the race, Donald Trump.
Haley has been critical of Trump in previous debates for running up the deficit, and DeSantis tonight ran through a list of criticisms, including why he didn’t “drain the swamp.” But neither candidate engaged in the kind of sustained barrage of Trump that would be expected, particularly since the former president has not only skipped the debate and belittled them, he has been counter programming the events.
“This is the debate … in case Donald Trump chokes on a cheeseburger,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell said in some of the post-commentary.
Trump’s decision to skip the debates — initially viewed as a risk — now looks more and more like a smart move. He has argued that were he to attend, he would merely be the target. But save for Chris Christie, who has staked much of his campaign on his dissonance from Trump, it’s not even clear that the former Celebrity Apprentice host would pay much of a price were he to show up.
That has made the debates the battle for No. 2, and with the clock ticking, candidates seem to have staked out a greater sense of urgency that they had to produce some kind of memorable moment. That was especially true with Vivek Ramaswamy, who continued to irritate the rest of the field with his talk radio host schtick. That was especially true when he called Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Jewish president of Ukraine, a “Nazi” and a “comedian in cargo pants.”
With a smaller field and more time to answer questions, candidates had fewer interruptions of each other than the previous debate, and the NBC News moderators did venture into substantive questions in areas of foreign policy. At moments, some of the candidates seemed to try to outdo each other in their hawkishness, as Haley called for striking Iran and Tim Scott seemed to call for starting a war with the the country.
DeSantis vowed to designate drug cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations.” “I’ll tell to this, if someone in the drug cartels is sneaking fentanyl across the border when I’m president, that’s gonna be the last thing they do. We’re gonna shoot them stone cold dead.”
In nearby Hialeah, Trump dismissed the latest gathering of rivals. “Nobody’s talking about it. Everybody is watching us,” he told a rally crowd, per the Miami Herald. That’s not entirely true, as cable news was blanketed with post-debate commentary. But 24 hours from now, he may be right.
PREVIOUSLY: A day after the GOP suffered electoral losses due to the continued backlash over the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe Vs. Wade, the Republican candidates showed just how much the party is still grappling with its response.
Nikki Haley said that “you have to be honest with the American people” in telling them that a federal abortion ban is not realistic. She also said, “Stop the judgment. We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore.”
Ron DeSantis said that Republicans had to do a better job in responding to situations where referendums are placed on the ballot. That was the case in Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional right to an abortion. Tim Scott called for a 15-week ban, and challenged Haley and DeSantis to support it. Vivek Ramaswamy blamed Republicans for not having an alternative amendment on the table to counter the Ohio measure.
Chris Christie, though, said that the issue should be left to the states. He said that he found New Jersey’s abortion law “morally reprehensible,” but “that is what the people voted for.”
PREVIOUSLY: The Republican debate returned to the topic of TikTok, as candidates accused the app of being the conduit for China to spread antisemitism and misinformation.
“It is polluting the minds of young people all over this country,” said former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, while criticizing Donald Trump for failing to carry out a ban on the app. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that he, too, would ban the app, saying that “China is the top threat we face — they have been very effective at infiltrating different parts of our society.”
TikTok was a topic in the last debate as well, with Vivek Ramaswamy diverging from the rest of the field by boasting of how he used the app. At this debate, he more generally said that he would ban any U.S. company from transferring data to China, while getting in a dig at former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. He noted that after she criticized him at the last debate for using TikTok, he found out that Haley’s daughter used it.
“You might want to take care of your family first,” Ramaswamy said.
“Leave my daughter out of it,” Haley shot back, later telling him, “You’re just scum.”
Co-moderator Kristen Welker was a target of Ramaswamy’s attack in his opening answer, but she did not respond then. She did, however, stop him later when he tried to interrupt Haley. “We ask the questions,” she told him.
The candidates were answering a question posed by Hugh Hewitt, who referred to comments about China made by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-W). Gallagher is chairing a special House committee on China and competition.
PREVIOUSLY: Vivek Ramaswamy used his opening question at the third Republican debate by turning to an old standby: Attacking the media.
In this case, at the NBC News-hosted event, he went after Kristen Welker, who is co-moderating the event along with Lester Holt.
“This should be Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk. We’d have 10 times the viewership, asking questions that GOP primary voters actually care about and bringing more people into our party,” Ramaswamy said.
Ramaswamy added, “Do you think the Democrats would actually hire Greg Gutfeld to actually host a Democratic debate. They wouldn’t do it.”
This was the first non-Fox News hosted debate this cycle, with NBC News also partnered with Salem Radio Network and Rumble, and Holt and Welker joined by Salem’s Hugh Hewitt as moderator.
Ramaswamy was responding to a pretty open ended first question posed by Lester Holt to all of the candidates: Why should you, and not Donald Trump, be the GOP nominee?
He didn’t really answer. Instead, he sought to blame the mainstream media, a favorite talking point of the GOP right. Ramaswamy, who trails former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the Trump alternative in the field, had already signaled that he would take steps to try to stand out from the field, which also included Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the Miami stage.
Ramaswamy tried to engage Welker, saying to her. “The Trump Russia collusion hoax that you pushed on this network for years. Was that real or was that Hillary Clinton made up disinformation? Answer the question. Go.”
A camera showed Welker staring at him, but not responding. Ramaswamy went on to claim that the media “rigged” the 2016 election and they “rigged” the 2020 election, before Holt told him that his time was up.
Ramaswamy also blamed GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel for GOP losses in Tuesday’s elections and previous disappointments, calling the Republican party a “party of losers” and “a cancer of the Republican establishment.”
Trump — billed as the “elephant that is not in the room” in pre-debate commentary — once again skipped the event, and was planning some counter programming with a rally in nearby Hialeah.
As was seen with Ramaswamy’s opening answer, the debate may be the final chance for one or more of the candidates to break through, as the GOP field already has thinned considerably. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who participated in the last debate, dropped out of the race last month.
In his first answer, DeSantis expanded his attacks on Trump, saying that he “owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance.” In contrast to Ramaswamy, DeSantis also seemed to blame Trump for Republican losses, noting that the former Celebrity Apprentice host “said Republicans were going to get tired of winning. [As] we saw last night — I’m sick of losing.”
Ramaswamy also came to the debate with a well-rehearsed line to attack Haley and DeSantis at the same time. “Do you want a leader from a different generation who is going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels. In which case, we’ve got two of them on stage tonight.” That was a reference to Haley’s foreign policy positions and DeSantis’ footwear.
In previous debates, candidates have clearly detested Ramaswamy, who has been trying to be the Trumpiest in the field yet, more recently, has faded in the polls. The reaction to Ramaswamy’s approach tonight was swift on X/Twitter. Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, wrote, “Vivek seems intent tonight on convincing anyone who had any doubt that he is indeed a horse’s ass.”
NBC News is giving candidates a bit more time to answer questions — 90 seconds — in hopes of limiting the instances of contenders talking over one another. That happened at the last debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, when there were unintelligible moments during some of the verbal sparring. Holt warned the candidates at the outset that “continued interruptions may lead to the loss of additional questions.”