Another chance to critique Trump gets lost in side fights at 3rd GOP debate: ANALYSIS

Few of the attacks on him seemed to stick in the moment.

November 8, 2023, 11:55 PM

The stage was more intimate. The voices were less restrained. And the candidates wound up again sniping more with each other than making the case against the front-runner who still wasn't there.

The third Republican primary debate, on Wednesday night in Miami, was as muddled as the race for president that it's supposed to be seeking to clarify, with nearly half a dozen candidates running against a rival so popular he felt no reason to show up.

Donald Trump took a bit more incoming fire, but few of those attacks seemed to stick in the moment, much less in the broader context of the campaign.

Between insults over footwear, occasionally sharp name-calling and attacks aimed at the moderators and even the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, the debate reflected some of the urgency of the campaign, but with little sustained focus.

While Trump was the subject of the first question of the night, he was criticized primarily for his spending policies while he was president and was hardly mentioned again as the debate went on. There was less crosstalk than at the messy second debate -- but little that seems likely to change the race's dynamics.

Recent world events, including the Israel-Hamas war, gave the candidates a chance to seek potential new lanes and argue about existing ones. But policy discussions over budget deficits and Social Security -- and how to position U.S. naval strength and grapple with Chinese-owned TikTok -- seemed disconnected from the fault lines that are actually likely to determine the GOP nomination for next year's election.

Even abortion rights, the driving force behind GOP losses in a range of states just a day earlier, weren't discussed until the final 20 minutes of the debate, and with little new ground broken.

As he did at the first debate, Vivek Ramaswamy managed to make himself the source of the choicest soundbites -- both for what he said and for what was said about him. With the debate landing just a day after the series of disappointing elections for Republicans, Ramaswamy declared, "We've become a party of losers."

He later assailed former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for advocating a ban of TikTok while her daughter had long used the app, leaving Haley to chastise him in the sharpest exchange of the night.

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

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate on Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami, Fla.
Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate on Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ramaswamy -- who told ABC News beforehand that he planned to be "unhinged" at the debate -- also called for RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel to come to the stage to resign and attacked the NBC News moderators as part of his first answer of the night. He suggested that both Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would lead the nation into more wars.

"Do you want a leader from a different generation who's going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels? In this case we've got two of them on stage now," Ramaswamy said -- a reference to reports that DeSantis has worn shoes that make him appear taller, which he says isn't true.

Haley took what Ramaswamy said as a chance to bite back at her opponents: "I wear heels -- they're not for a fashion statement, they're for ammunition."

She also didn't hold back on Ramaswamy himself. "I am telling you, Putin and President Xi are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president," she said, referring to Russia and China's leaders.

Former Gov. Chris Christie piled on: "Those of us who forget history are doomed to repeat it. ... The absolute giving in to dictators which is being suggested on this stage just shows the immaturity of the approach."

All of the candidates voiced strong support for Israel in its war with Hamas, in the wake of Hamas' terror attack. "Finish the job," DeSantis advised the Israelis; "finish them," Haley said; "wipe Hamas off of the map," South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said.

Scott saw an opportunity to suggest that the United States needed to strike Iran for what the Pentagon has called its support of attacks on American military interests.

"I would say to President Biden, diplomacy-only is a weak strategy," Scott said. "My foreign policy is simple: You cannot negotiate with evil. You have to destroy it."

In contrast with Trump, the jabs at Joe Biden came from all corners. But offered the chance to make cases for themselves against Trump in the GOP primary, the candidates tread relatively lightly and mostly reverted to what they've usually said.

"Donald Trump's a lot different guy than he was in 2016," DeSantis said.

"He was the right president at the right time. I don't think that he's the right president now," Haley said.

"Anybody who's going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jails and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country," Christie said, referring to Trump's legal troubles. (He denies all wrongdoing.)

PHOTO: Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks at the third Republican candidates' U.S. presidential debate in Miami, Fla., on Nov 8, 20
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks at the third Republican candidates' U.S. presidential debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Fla., on Nov 8, 2023.
Mike Segar/Reuters

On abortion restrictions, there were few signs of recalibration among the candidates in the wake of Tuesday's results, which saw voters in Ohio resoundingly back abortion rights. Haley reiterated her position as a "pro-life" candidate who wants to find compromises that limit abortion and also can be embraced by Congress and voters.

"As much as I'm pro-life, I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice," Haley said.

"Let's see what we can agree on," she said.

Christie broke with the rest of the field in saying that there should be no new federal limitations on abortion: "This is an issue that should be decided in each state."

Only five candidates had qualified for Wednesday night's debate -- down from eight in August and seven at the last debate, in late September. The next debate, in early December, will probably feature a smaller group still.

Trump is again unlikely to attend and he and his aides have said there's no point, given his support with GOP voters.

But his presence figures to be potentially larger -- in part because none of his rivals have figured out a way to chip away at his lead, either at debates or on the campaign trail beyond.