The third Republican debate of the presidential primary candidates featured foreign policy as the main topic, but also revolved around former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the nomination, absent once again from the stage. Unlike on previous occasions, when the former president was barely mentioned until well into the debate, the moderators had the good sense to start-off by asking about him. And the candidates, starting with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, didn’t hesitate to go on the attack against the former president, as they had already begun to do in the second debate. The strategy of appeasement and limiting criticism against Trump has not worked for them so far. It remains to be seen whether the shift will do them any good. The debate then shifted to mutual attacks, including some of a personal nature: “You’re just scum,” Nikki Haley said to Vivek Ramaswamy after he mentioned her daughter.
The debate was scheduled for the day after a by-election in which the Democrats won important victories in Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, which led the candidates to criticize the current situation of the GOP. When asked why Trump supporters should turn their backs on the former president and support them instead, DeSantis, Haley and Christie all went straight on the attack.
“Now if you look where we are now, it’s a lot different than we were in 2016 and Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” DeSantis 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 and he said Republicans were going to get tired of winning. When we saw last night. I’m sick of Republicans losing. In Florida, I showed how it’s done one year ago,” he added, reminding the audience about his spectacular result in his reelection as governor.
Haley started diplomatically, but quickly went for the jugular. “I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time. I don’t think he’s the right president now. He put us $8 trillion in debt and our kids are never going to forgive us for that. I think that he used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues, now he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again, I think that we’ve got to go back to the fact that we can’t live in the past. We can’t live in other headlines. We’ve got to start focusing on what’s going to make America strong and proud. And that’s what I’m focused on doing,” she said.
Trumpist Vivek Ramaswamy, on the other hand, avoided direct attacks on the president, but lashed out at the party apparatus and the media. “We’ve become a party of losers,” he said, before one of his off-the-cuff outbursts in which he has said that the debate moderators should be extremist Tucker Carlson and entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Chris Christie, for his part, said that Trump was going to spend the next year more focused on his problems in the courts. In his case, he attacked the former president since the first debate, so it was not a big novelty. If anything, he was more restrained this time around. Tim Scott, on the other hand, avoided overt criticism of the former president, but was once again a lackluster performer.
Full support for Israel
The debate immediately turned to foreign policy, which took up a good portion of the time. The candidates competed over who was most critical of Hamas and most supportive of Israel. They also criticized Biden for his handling of the crisis and for denouncing Islamophobia. They have focused their attacks on the anti-Semitism they see in the universities (“jihad,” DeSantis even called it).
Then, Ramaswamy once again went off on a tangent: “Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels? In which case, we’ve got two of them on stage tonight,” he said, invoking the former vice president in what appeared to be an attack on Haley and DeSantis, who has been said to wear lifts on his shoes to appear taller. Haley got stirred up: “They’re 5-inch heels, and I don’t wear them unless I can run in them. They’re not fashion — they’re ammunition.” And she then took advantage of a question on Ukraine, in which Ramaswamy argued against giving more aid to Kyiv, to hit back: “I’m telling you that Putin and President Xi are salivating that someone like that could be president.”
“You’re just scum”
Haley and Christie came out as the most favorable to U.S. protagonism in foreign policy as the leader of the free world. DeSantis, after his onslaught against Hamas, avoided making a clear statement on support for Ukraine (“we have to end this war,” he said), adding that he would not send troops there but to the border with Mexico. Ramaswamy presented himself as the representative of the isolationist wing of the party.
They all agreed, however, that China is the great geostrategic threat to the United States, although they attacked each other for having been too soft on the Asian power in the past. Several candidates expressed their willingness to ban TikTok, the Chinese-owned social network. But even that served to pit Haley and Ramaswamy against each other. The businessman said, “[Haley] made fun of me for actually joining TikTok… Her own daughter was actually using the app.” Haley swiftly responded in a rage: “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” as the audience booed Ramaswamy. “You’re just scum,” she added through gritted teeth seconds later.
On social security, Haley offered an articulate speech in favor of raising the retirement age. Christie also supported it, while the rest took refuge in vague generalities, arguing that the solution is to make the economy grow more and for there should to be lower inflation.
The debate was nearing its end when the moderators asked the candidates about abortion, given the prominence of the issue in Tuesday’s elections and foreseeably in the presidential campaign too. Tim Scott advocated for a federal limit of 15 weeks. Ron DeSantis, who has enacted a law in Florida that prohibits abortion from six weeks onwards, said he understands that other states have different legislation, but that he defends a “culture of life.” Christie said he favored leaving it up to the states to regulate. Haley said that it is not realistic to think of a federal law, declared herself “pro-life,” but said she didn’t not judge those who declare themselves “pro-choice.” She encouraged the search for consensus and for the issue to stop being divisive. Ramaswamy digressed again: “Here’s the missing ingredient in this movement, sexual responsibility for men,” he said, stressing that paternity tests are very reliable, but it was not clear how this would prevent abortions. “It’s not men’s rights versus women’s rights. It’s about human rights,” he added, following the same line.
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