When moderator Lester Holt opened the third Republican debate Wednesday night by asking the candidates why they would be better GOP nominees than Donald Trump, they were a little more willing than they’ve been before to criticize the former president.
However, in the two hours that followed, Trump’s opponents gave up, squabbling with each other and occasionally taking jabs at President Joe Biden. Therefore, to those who are keeping score on debate victors and losers, consider the absence of the Republican front-runner as the big winner. Once more.
Trump was down the road from the Miami debate, in Hialeah, speaking for more than an hour at one of his signature rallies. “Nobody’s talking about it,” Trump told the crowd in a brief and shrugging reference to the competing forum, using derogatory nicknames for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. “So it’s 61% for your favorite president, me, and 10% for Ron DeSanctimonious and 7% for birdbrain,” he said.
During the discussion, Trump received only slight punches, leaving his position as the Republican Party’s front-runner unopposed. His reluctance to participate in the forums and his growing legal risks appear to have simply strengthened his commanding lead over the other candidates in the GOP field.
The field of five discussed a litany of SerIous Matters, particularly on foreign policy – on Israel and Hamas, the war in Ukraine, the threat from China, even the number of Navy ships they would build as presidents.
However, given Trump’s lead in the race and his absence from the debate stage, the two-hour forum, which was organised by NBC News and the Salem Radio Network and took place at the Adrienne Arsht Centre for the Performing Arts, appeared more like a scholarly exercise than a meeting that would likely have an impact on the nomination fight, which is set to start in Iowa in just two months.
The contest’s defining dynamic hasn’t changed despite the contenders who were qualified to participate in the official debate having been narrowed down. Compared to the first debate in August, Trump is now more securely established as the front-runner. He also passed on that one.
Now there’s a word you rarely hear in a debate
Not that Miami didn’t have its share of viral moments.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy accused Haley of hypocrisy in criticizing TikTok because her daughter has acknowledged using the app, “so you might want to take care of your family first.”
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley replied icily. “You’re just scum.”
Ramaswamy was fighting for attention in the media and momentum in the contest, given his low support in national polls in important early states. Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, whose popularity has declined, had his sights set on a rising Haley. It seems like they were all motivated by a deep desire to finish second.
So what’s second prize?
Short of winning the nomination, there are some advantages to making a run for it.
The challengers are all younger than the 77-year-old Trump, and any of them might envision a run for president in 2028 or later. That could make this a helpful practice run for, say, Haley and DeSantis that introduces them to prospective donors and voters.
Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott might end up in the Cabinet in a Trump administration. There’s been speculation about Scott as a running mate for Trump, though he has mused that he might choose a woman as his vice-presidential nominee. Christie has presented himself as a truth-teller, burnishing his credentials as Trump’s sharpest critic.
‘I’m sick of Republicans losing’
This time, the other candidates also offered some criticism of the frontrunner.
DeSantis suggested Trump was responsible for Democratic victories in Tuesday’s off-year elections in Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. “He said Republicans were going to get tired of winning,” the Florida governor said, repeating a line Trump has used. “We saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing.”
Haley said Trump was “getting weak in the knees” in standing up to Russia in Ukraine and suggested his day had come and gone. Christie said that a candidate who was “focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.”
In fact, though, Trump is now well on his way to achieving the first of those goals, of landing the nomination at the top of the GOP ticket in 2024.
Meanwhile, the fourth GOP debate has been set for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Late Wednesday night, Trump’s campaign announced he wouldn’t join that one, either.