"You're just scum": Key takeaways from a heated GOP debate
MIAMI — Simmering feuds turned intensely personal at the third GOP presidential debate, in which five candidates sparred over a chance to lead a party still reeling from the latest in a streak of election setbacks.
Why it matters: Call it desperation mode. Every candidate on stage was keenly aware that former President Trump — who held a counter-programming rally down the road in Hialeah, Florida — is on a glide path to re-nomination, beginning with the Iowa caucuses in 67 days.
1. Vivek Ramaswamy's attention-grabbing gamble.
- The breakout candidate from the early months of the campaign did everything he could to salvage his fading star power, fulfilling a pre-debate promise to ABC News to "be unhinged."
- In his opening answer, Ramaswamy attacked debate moderator Kristen Welker — saying the panel should be replaced by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk — as well as claimed the 2016 and 2020 elections were "rigged" by the media and demanded that Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel resign.
- By the end of night, the polarizing entrepreneur had called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an anti-democratic "comedian in cargo pants," proposed building a wall on the U.S.-Canada border, and suggested President Biden might be replaced by Michelle Obama.
2. Knives out for Haley
- Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley took incoming fire from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose claims that this is a two-person race between him and Trump no longer look credible given Haley's recent polling strength.
- Attacking her hawkish foreign policy positions, Ramaswamy referred to Haley as "Dick Cheney in three-inch heels" — a line that drew audible gasps from the packed Miami press room. Haley later clapped back: "They're five-inch heels, and I don't wear them unless you can run in them."
- It was also Haley who stole the most memorable moment of the night by calling Ramaswamy "scum" for bringing up her daughter during an exchange about TikTok.
3. Abortion divides the debate stage.
- While Ramaswamy excoriated Republicans as a "party of losers" over their abortion-related defeats in Tuesday's elections, DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) doubled down on their anti-abortion credentials.
- Haley stressed the need to "find consensus" on the issue, keeping her position vague and appealing for compassion: "As much as I'm pro-life, I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don't want them to judge me for being pro-life," she said.
4. Unity on Israel.
- In a debate dominated by foreign policy, all five candidates pledged support for Israel — with most attempting to outflank one another with vivid descriptions of the need to obliterate Hamas.
- Their condemnation of pro-Palestinian protests and the absence of any mention of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza could serve as a wake-up call to progressive critics of Biden, many of whom have vowed not to support the president in 2024 over his refusal to call for a ceasefire.
5. Trump's victory in absentia.
- While the Republican front-runner faced some criticism in the opening minutes of the debate, his raucous rally 10 miles away vindicated the decision to allow his rivals to spend the night battling for second place.
- Supporters showed up as early as 6am for the evening rally in Hialeah, where the crowd delighted in Trump's monologue and paid little attention to his gaffes about the population of North Korea and Hungary's nonexistent border with Russia.
The bottom line: DeSantis benefitted from home-field advantage, drawing cheers when he recalled his landslide re-election in Florida a year ago.
- He also has new momentum after earning a rare endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this week.
- That — along with Haley's strong performance, Ramaswamy's avowed role as an insurgent and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's commitment to contesting the New Hampshire primary — virtually ensures that the GOP field will not consolidate to the degree necessary to stop Trump.