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6 takeaways from the third Republican primary debate

Republican presidential candidates from left, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., participate in a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News Wednesday in Miami.
Rebecca Blackwell
/
AP
Republican presidential candidates from left, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., participate in a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News Wednesday in Miami.

Five candidates qualified, but the third Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday was largely seen as a contest between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — once considered the most likely challenger to take on former President Donald Trump — and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been making significant strides in early primary polls.

But some of the sharpest exchanges during the debate in Miami were between Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who repeatedly sniped at Haley and even at one point criticized her daughter. Also on stage were South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Here are six major takeaways from the third GOP primary debate.

Trump came up, but didn't loom large

It's been a contentious primary so far, and as the field narrows, the undercard candidates appear to be feeling pressure to stand out from their rivals even as Trump continues to dominate.

But even though he wasn't there, opting to hold his own event nearby, Trump led the debate anyway. NBC's Lester Holt, one of the moderators, opened with a question about the absent frontrunner, asking why they should be the nominee instead.

The candidates all are vying to replace him, but they've each taken a slightly different approach to navigating the thorny issue of how to take on a frontrunner who is deeply popular with the party's base without alienating those voters.

DeSantis made the case that it's time for a new leader, saying that a lot has happened since Trump's ascent, and adding, "Donald Trump's a lot different guy than he was in 2016." DeSantis reiterated that Trump should be on stage to answer for his record.

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday in Miami.
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday in Miami.

Haley tried to thread the needle, validating voters who'd supported Trump in the past while calling for new leadership: "I think he was the right president at the right time. I don't think he's the right president now." She accused Trump of getting "weak in the knees" on foreign policy issues including support for Ukraine.

Ramaswamy avoided the Trump question completely and instead called for new leadership by painting a picture of a party of "losers," pointing to the disappointing results in this week's off-year elections, saying, "We got trounced last night."

Ramaswamy also used the moment to take an unexpected dig at the debate moderators, suggesting instead that billionaire Elon Musk, podcaster Joe Rogan and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson should have been helming the show.

Christie, meanwhile, who has centered his candidacy on directly challenging Trump, said the United States needs a leader who will make the country look "not just inward, but look outward at the world."

The Israel-Hamas war dominated the discussion

Foreign policy, particularly the war between Israel and Hamas, was a major theme in the debate, which was co-sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. It was the first Republican primary debate since Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people.

Support for Israel has historically been bipartisan in the United States, but Republican support is particularly strong — especially among the party's white evangelical Christian base — and the candidates each jockeyed to demonstrate their steadfast backing for the world's only Jewish state.

Each candidate reiterated their support for Israel's military response to Hamas, which has left thousands dead in Gaza.

Asked what they would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the candidates largely echoed each other. DeSantis said he would tell him to "finish the job" with Hamas. DeSantis touted his efforts to bring home Americans who found themselves trapped in Israel as the war broke out.

Referencing her time as U.N. ambassador, Haley also called on Israel to "finish" Hamas and described support for Israel as the "tip of the spear when it comes to Islamic terrorism."

Christie said Netanyahu "must go in and make sure that Hamas can never do this again."

Ramaswamy said he would advise the Israeli leader to "smoke those terrorists on his southern border and ... I'll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border."

Responding to a later question about rising antisemitism on college campuses, Ramaswamy expressed support for free speech before saying, "These kids have no idea what they're talking about when they side with Hamas over Israel. They are fools."

Scott and DeSantis both threatened to cancel student visas and pull federal funding over such incidents.

Foreign policy — and funding — took center stage

After an extensive discussion on Israel and Hamas, instead of moving on to domestic policy topics, as is often the case in primary debates, foreign policy remained front and center as candidates addressed Ukraine and talked extensively about China. Scott expressed support for Ukraine's fight against Russia while cautioning that the president must be clear about the United States' "national interest" there.

Ramaswamy once again voiced skepticism about Ukraine funding, prompting Haley to retort, "[Russian President] Putin and [Chinese] President Xi are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president."

Haley sought to tie U.S. funding for Ukraine to funding for Israel, arguing that backing both war efforts is part of a larger goal of shoring up democracies around the world and pushing back against the influence of Russia, Iran and China.

DeSantis pledged not to send U.S. troops to Ukraine, but said he would send troops to the U.S. border with Mexico. DeSantis also called for greater focus on China, which he deemed the nation's greatest national security threat.

Scott also used the foreign policy discussion to pivot to the southern border, an issue that these candidates feel more comfortable talking about, and which voters often bring up on the campaign trail.

The Ramaswamy-Haley show continued

Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday in Miami.
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday in Miami.

While the debate was generally light on fireworks, a trend of sparring between Haley and Ramaswamy continued Wednesday night.

During a discussion about foreign policy surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, Ramaswamy appeared to take a swipe at either Haley, the only female candidate, or DeSantis, whose footwear has been a recent subject of speculation. Ramaswamy asked, "Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?"

Moments later, Haley responded: "I'd first like to say they're five-inch heels, and I don't wear them unless I can run in them."

This tone continued in a later discussion about Chinese influence. Another moderator, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt of Salem Radio Network, asked the candidates about the potential national security risk associated with social media platform TikTok.

Hewitt noted that Ramaswamy has campaigned on TikTok, and asked how he would restrict a product he uses. Ramaswamy then pivoted the focus to Haley, accusing her daughter of having used the app.

"Leave my daughter out of your voice," Haley hit back. "You're just scum."

There were other moments of contention, like when DeSantis accused Haley of being pro-China as governor of South Carolina and she lobbed the same accusation back at him. But overall, Haley and Ramaswamy's exchanges contained the most heat.

Republicans want to win on the economy but struggle with specifics

The candidates did, eventually, get to domestic issues, including the economy and the future of Social Security.

Asked about a plan for keeping the program for elderly and disabled Americans solvent in the long-term, Christie and Haley each said they would increase the eligibility age, but declined to say by how much. Christie said wealthy Americans should not accept Social Security, citing billionaire Warren Buffet as an example, but did not specify an income level at which he believes such a rule should apply.

DeSantis appeared skeptical of Haley's suggestion of tying the retirement age to increasing life expectancy since the program was created, noting that life expectancy has been declining in recent years.

Scott warned against raising the retirement age for people with physical jobs that become more difficult to perform with age, and appealed to the plight of farmers who do heavy physical labor in the first-in-the-nation-caucus state of Iowa.

The abortion issue is unavoidable for Republicans

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday in Miami.
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday in Miami.

A question on abortion seemed inevitable given the disappointing results of Tuesday's election for Republicans who oppose abortion rights. But the issue didn't come up until more than 90 minutes into the debate.

When talking about abortion, Republican primary candidates face the challenge of appealing to the party's conservative base without alienating potential general election swing voters. As moderator Kristen Welker of NBC noted, that political risk for Republicans was underscored by the election results. Welker asked the candidates what they see as the "path forward" for Republicans on the abortion issue.

Ramaswamy said he was "upset" about his home state, Ohio's, vote to add a reproductive rights amendment to the state constitution and called for a greater emphasis on "sexual responsibility for men" through paternity testing.

Haley repeated a line she has used on the campaign trail, describing herself as "pro-life," while adding, "I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice." She praised the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and said the issue should no longer divide the country.

Christie, like Haley, emphasized the role of state legislatures in a post-Roe environment in deciding abortion policy. "I trust the people of this country, state by state, to make this call for themselves," Christie said, adding that he finds his home state of New Jersey's liberal abortion laws "reprehensible."

Of all five candidates on stage, Scott has arguably made the most direct pitch to religious conservatives, emphasizing his Christian beliefs and opposition to abortion. With former Vice President Mike Pence's departure from the race last month, Scott appeared to pick up where Pence had left off, calling for a national 15-week abortion ban.

As Haley has repeatedly pointed out and reiterated on the stage, passing such a law would require a Republican majority in Congress as well as the presidency.

Throughout the debate, Scott quoted the Bible, and answered the opening question by calling for "restoring our Christian values" and closing by saying that he wanted to "win the war ... for the Christian conservative values that changed my life."

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.