Calls to ‘finish’ Hamas and ‘you’re just scum’: key Republican debate takeaways
Candidates showed unequivocal support for Israel on a night when Nikki Haley shot back at Vivek Ramaswamy’s criticism
The third Republican debate was held in Miami on Wednesday, with the frontrunner Donald Trump once again foregoing the debate for his own rally nearby.
The pool has dwindled since the last debate, and Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott and Chris Christie seemed to be more serious and focused this time around as they answered questions on the Israel-Hamas war, immigration, abortion and the federal budget. Even so, the debate had moments where it devolved into a shouting match, with petty barbs and personal attacks.
Here are the main things to know about the debate.
1. The Israel-Hamas war was top of mind – and the rhetoric turned ugly
The candidates largely tried to one-up each other on their unequivocal support for Israel and its military response to the Hamas attacks on 7 October, with the exception of Vivek Ramaswamy, who said the US should not be as actively involved in regional wars.
''The first thing I said when it happened was, I said, finish them. Finish them,” Haley said about Hamas, touting her former position as ambassador to the United Nations under Donald Trump. DeSantis, meanwhile, focused on the flights he chartered for Floridians in Israel before overstating his aid to the Israeli government.
When asked about how the impact of the war was playing out on college campuses in the US, however, DeSantis seemingly denied the existence of Islamophobia, and said he would quash some pro-Palestine student groups.
The candidates did not address the estimated 10,000 Palestinian civilians killed by Israel’s strikes and its ground invasion in Gaza.
2. After Republican election losses, candidates tried to regain ground, especially on abortion
The day before the debate, the Republican party saw major losses across the country, from the Virginia state legislature to Kentucky’s governorship. The candidates addressed that head on.
“We’ve become a party of losers,” Ramaswamy said in his opening statements. “We got trounced last night in 2023. And I think that we have to have accountability in our party.”
Many of the election losses were in states where Republicans were trying to enact stricter abortion laws after Roe v Wade was overturned last year. DeSantis, Christie and Haley tried to address that issue by backing away from rightwing anti-abortion rhetoric and focusing on states’ rights to choose.
Haley, in particular, took the most measured stance, saying she did not judge those who support abortion and that a federal abortion ban was politically untenable.
3. Haley and DeSantis continued to battle for second place
While neither Haley nor DeSantis are polling anywhere close to Trump, they stood out in the pack throughout the debate.
Haley focused on her experience in the UN and on foreign policy issues, and DeSantis on his tenure as Florida governor. Both seemed to try to remain more composed than usual, with Haley only reacting to barbs from Ramaswamy.
“Our world is on fire,” Haley said in her closing remarks. “We can’t win the fights of the 21st century with politicians from the 20th century.”
Not far from the debate hall, Trump held a campaign rally. But fellow Florida man DeSantis avoided many direct attacks on the former president.
“This is not about me, this is about you,” he said in his opening and closing remarks.
4. There were personal attacks – particularly involving Ramaswamy
Ramaswamy started his debate by attacking the media, the RNC chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, and even the NBC moderators, seemingly as part of his attempt to portray himself as the anti-establishment candidate.
He then turned his focus to Haley. “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?” he said, criticizing her hawkish foreign policy positions.
And when it came the entrepreneur’s turn to talk about his policy on TikTok, Ramaswamy referred to Haley and said: “In the last debate, she made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time. So you might want to take care of your family first.”
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley shot back. When Ramaswamy went on, she dismissed him, saying: “You are just scum.”
5. Candidates were more serious and focused than in past debates
The earlier debates, with larger candidate pools, had tended to be circus-like in their atmosphere, with more riffs and off-topic detours. From the opening statements, the debate seemed to be more focused on the issues Americans are grappling with, from war in the Middle East and in Ukraine, and kitchen-table issues such as social security.
The seriousness of the candidates seemed to reflect that the primary season was just around the corner, and that positioning themselves strategically around Trump would mean building more trust with American voters.