Trump Skips Debate
WASHINGTON (AP) — As they face an increasingly urgent task to emerge as a clear alternative to former President Donald Trump, five Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday for the party’s latest debate.
Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the race, skipped the event, as he has the first two, citing his polling advantage. There was no shortage of noteworthy confrontations on stage, as the participants debated the Israel-Hamas war, the future of abortion rights and Trump himself.
But with the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses approaching, it seemed unlikely that the debate fundamentally changed the presidential nomination fight.
Wednesday marked the first time the presidential candidates gathered on a debate stage since war broke out between Israel and Hamas, resulting in a sharper foreign policy conversation compared to previous forums.
The contenders were unified in offering robust support for Israel and bemoaned antisemitism, especially on liberal college campuses. But they said virtually nothing about protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
The GOP’s familiar foreign policy split, however, resurfaced when the exchanges veered into the war in Ukraine, the possibility of China confronting Taiwan and how to handle Venezuela’s oil market.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all sounded traditional GOP notes, backing military aid to Ukraine, calling for vastly increased investment in the military and linking all the global conflicts.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy tried to set himself apart, claiming the rest of the stage was part of a bipartisan foreign policy establishment that blundered into repeated disasters in foreign wars. A longtime critic of aid to Ukraine, he followed up his condemnation of antisemitism by calling that country’s Jewish president “a Nazi.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed like he was straddling the divide. At one point, he dodged a question about Ukraine and China by talking about boosting security on the southern border and suggesting he’d deport immigrants from the Middle East.
All of the candidates are trying to overtake Trump, who is the dominant front-runner in the primary. But for the most part, they’ve spent the primary campaign avoiding any opportunity to take on the former president.
That became harder during the first debate hosted by a network that wasn’t affiliated with the Trump-friendly Fox News. Moderators from NBC News opened by pressing the contenders to articulate why they — and not Trump — should become the Republican nominee.
There was hardly a robust takedown of Trump, who remains popular among the GOP base and hosted a rival event Wednesday. But DeSantis was the most forceful.
“Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” he said, declaring that Trump owed it to Republican primary voters to show up and explain his record.
But even DeSantis’ strong words spanned less than 30 seconds. And he stopped short of questioning Trump’s “balls” for skipping the debate, as he had in recent days.
The other candidates were less aggressive.
Asked why he’s a better nominee than Trump, Ramaswamy went so far as to blame Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel — not Trump — for the GOP’s repeated losses in national elections since Trump won the presidency in 2016.
When she was asked about Trump, Haley made a passing reference of the national debt that piled up under his watch. Scott said the GOP needs to win over independent voters. Christie devoted one sentence to highlighting Trump’s legal troubles.
There were five candidates on the debate stage, but the vendetta between two of them stood out — Haley and Ramaswamy.
The two children of Indian immigrants have collided during previous debates. But the tension intensified Wednesday night with Ramaswamy gleefully playing the role of aggressor. He took several initial digs at Haley — at one point he called her and DeSantis “Cheney in 3-inch heels,” a reference to controversial former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz, a congresswoman excommunicated from the GOP for her criticism of Trump.
But it was halfway through the debate, after Haley said she’d respond to Ramaswamy’s digs rather than answer a question about banning Tik-Tok, that Ramaswamy made his most shocking attack.
Noting Haley hadn’t answered the question, Ramaswamy said, “Her own daughter was using the app for a long time, so you might want to take care of your daughter first
Haley responded by forcefully telling Ramaswamy to “leave my daughter out of your voice.” She later said, “You’re just scum.”