It was the undercard that disappointed.
The third consecutive Republican presidential debate that former President Donald J. Trump skipped — choosing instead to rally around supporters just miles away — represented a crucial and dwindling chance for his rivals to bridge the chasm of electoral advantage.
And with only five contestants on stage for the first time – Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott – they all had a lot more time to speak.
Yet they had little to say about Mr. Trump, even when given the chance a little more than two months before the Iowa caucuses.
They faced off in a sweeping debate that dissected disagreements over aid to Ukraine, social security, confronting China, banning TikTok and how to approach abortion under 24 hours later. The Republicans suffered their latest electoral setbacks motivated by the fall of Roe v. Wade.
But there was something surreal about such detailed discussions taking place between candidates who seem so far removed from the Oval Office — even Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley, who have asserted themselves as leaders of the non-Trump pack.
Here are six takeaways from a debate in Miami that may be best remembered Ms Haley attacks Mr Ramaswamy“You’re just scum.”
Haley came out in great shape.
Nikki Haley emerged as a center of power on the debate stage, giving an energetic performance that took advantage of the night’s focus on foreign policy to present a clear and hawkish vision of America’s role in the world.
Drawing on her experience as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she has adopted expansive and interventionist positions that run counter to Mr. Trump’s foreign policy vision of “America ‘on board “.
She supported Ukraine to the end. She said she would support military strikes against Iran. And she said the United States must support Israel with “whatever it needs and when it needs it.”
Most of the other candidates gave identical versions – but Ms. Haley had the advantage of having represented the United States on the world stage.
When the candidates were asked what they would urge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do at that time, Mr. DeSantis said he would “tell him” to eliminate Hamas. Ms. Haley said she had effectively told Mr. Netanyahu to “finish them.”
As Ms. Haley vies with Mr. DeSantis to establish herself as the alternative to Trump, some of the party’s biggest donors were closely watching her performance as they debated whether to spend millions on her behalf in a desperate final effort to beat Mr. Trump.
Ms. Haley’s competitors recognized her growing status by targeting her.
DeSantis always plays it safe in a game he loses.
It seemed, for a while, that this would be a different kind of debate for Mr. DeSantis. His opening response highlighted how he would be better than Mr. Trump.
“He should explain why he didn’t ask Mexico to pay for the border wall,” Mr. DeSantis began. “He should explain why he has accumulated so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp. He went on to say that Mr. Trump had promised to “win” only for his party to endure years of “defeat,” including on Tuesday.
“In Florida, I showed how it was done,” Mr. DeSantis said, trying to take advantage of a debate organized in Miami.
But then he left Mr. Trump largely untouched, content to pursue his own business and fend off rivals like Ms. Haley. It’s the same strategy he used in the first two debates, with little success.
Mr. DeSantis is clearly more comfortable than during the first debate. Yet he surprisingly left unmentioned a development that his campaign presented as a game-changer: endorsement this week from Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa.
You can’t argue with someone who isn’t there.
Once again, the candidates did little to aggressively oppose Mr. Trump, who made himself unavailable for direct fights by refusing to take the stage with his rivals or, for the most part, to appear with them at multi-candidate rallies during the election campaign.
Without Mr. Trump present, the five contenders were left to tear each other apart, with varying levels of nastiness.
The first question posed to the candidates was the fundamental question that most of them have struggled to answer to Republican voters: why they, and not Mr. Trump, should be the nominee.
As expected, Mr. Christie was the most vocal in his attack, arguing that someone who faces Mr. Trump’s criminal charges “cannot lead this party or this country.”
But Mr. DeSantis took only a brief hit. Ms Haley praised Mr Trump’s presidency, then criticized him, saying he had become “weak” on Ukraine and his time was over. Mr. Ramaswamy defended Mr. Trump in passing. And Mr. Scott spoke for himself.
That was almost the extent of the effort to take down the runaway favorite. Nearby, Mr. Trump held a rally in Hialeah, Fla., remarking at one point that his rivals were “unwatchable.”
For months, candidates have struggled to find a way to force him into the ring with them, with Mr. Christie threatening to follow him on the campaign trail and Mr. DeSantis, in recent days, press for rude responses to Mr. Trump’s brutal taunts. By the third debate, none of them figured out how to make this work.
This debate has become personal.
After three debates, the observation is clear: certain candidates present on stage really do not like each other.
Most hated appears to be Mr. Ramaswamy, who fought from the start not only with the rivals around him, but also with NBC moderators and the head of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, whom he urged to resign in his opening speech.
At times, Mr. Ramaswamy seemed almost to do Mr. Trump’s bidding, attacking NBC’s past coverage of the former president’s scandals.
He launched acid attacks against Ms. Haley, mocking her foreign policy and calling her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” He slipped into a crack about Mr. DeSantis’s shoes, suggesting that the governor of Florida, too, carried elevators. Mr. DeSantis ignored him. Ms Haley said hers were five inches long and “for ammo”.
When Mr. Ramaswamy then brought up his daughter’s use of TikTok, she demanded, “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” then added, almost in disbelief at the exchange: “You’re just a scum.”
Abortion remains a Republican quagmire.
After Tuesday’s defeats, Republican candidates knew they would face questions about the path forward on abortion. But most of them didn’t seem to know what to say.
“We feel better when we can promote a culture of life,” said Mr. DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban in his state. He hasn’t said much about what his party should do or what he would do as president. “At the same time, I understand that some of these states are doing it a little differently.”
Ms. Haley described herself as opposed to abortion, but said it would be virtually impossible to pass national restrictions, arguing that it is crucial to be “honest” with the public.
At times, Ms. Haley appeared to be trying to woo general election voters. “I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice,” she said. It’s the kind of line that makes Democratic strategists worry about her strength should she win the nomination — but also one that the Republican base probably won’t accept.
All this amounts to a reminder that the Republicans, after decades of campaigning against the right to abortion, have not yet found what to say after having finally obtained from the Supreme Court that their wish is that Mr. Trump – who will not say also not where it stands on a national ban – reworked.
Was this Tim Scott’s swan song?
Mr Scott qualified for this debate by the slimmest of margins, with a single poll – the legitimacy of which some of his rivals have privately disputed – securing his place. But the thresholds will be higher for the next debate in December, and Mr. Scott’s allies recognize that he must do something, anything, just to remain a factor.
It’s hard to imagine he did anything Wednesday night to change course. He stuck to the same messages he delivered throughout the campaign. He described an America in need of spiritual healing and a return to Judeo-Christian values.
He received more attention for what he did after the debate than for anything he said during the debate. Mr. Scott, 58, has never been married and entire newspaper articles were dedicated to a mysterious girlfriend who had never been seen with him in public.
Until he brought her on stage.
Michael Gold contributed reporting from Hialeah, Florida.