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Three takeaways from another Trump-less Republican presidential debate

Highlights from the third Republican presidential debate
Five candidates took the stage in Miami, Florida Wednesday night (NBC News). (Olivia Yarvis/Globe Staff)

WASHINGTON — The third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami may have featured two fewer candidates but somehow, it felt both crowded and under-attended.

The latter was due to the fact that the overwhelming front-runner, former president Donald Trump, again chose to skip the confab and instead held a rally about 11 miles away.

The five candidates left to slug away to justify their presence on stage were former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.

The two eliminated candidates were North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who didn’t make the cut, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who dropped out on Oct. 28 after months of failing to gain meaningful traction.


Much like the previous two debates, Trump emerged largely unscathed as candidates like Haley and DeSantis were lightly critical of him on matters such as the economy and Trump’s record of losing down-ballot elections, respectively. Christie reprised his assertion that Trump couldn’t run for office and fight a litany of court cases currently moving through the federal and several state judicial systems. But the debate quickly moved on, and Trump, who leads the field by double digits, was rarely mentioned again.

Perhaps to underscore this, the Trump campaign issued a press release 10 minutes before the debate ended, titled “President Trump wins...again!”

Here are some other takeaways from the third Republican debate:

Haley vs. DeSantis

For weeks Haley’s campaign has appeared to be on the upswing as several recent polls showed her passing DeSantis as the voters’ second choice behind Trump. That rise triggered a volley of attack ads from DeSantis allies.

The two were side-by-side on the stage Wednesday night and, after largely avoiding each other for the first half of the debate, they spent the second half clashing over China, fracking, and oil drilling.


Increasing US energy production is a policy all the candidates agree on and a point of contrast with President Biden.

After DeSantis said he would “unleash all of America’s energy potential on day one,” Haley immediately pounced on him for his past positions on energy production as Florida governor.

“It cracks me up that Ron continues to do this. He has opposed fracking. He’s opposed drilling,” Haley said, adding that DeSantis was “praised by the Sierra Club” and accusing him of being “a liberal when it comes to the environment.”

It was similar to an attack Haley launched on DeSantis at the second debate. DeSantis has said his hands were tied on drilling off the Florida coast by a state constitutional amendment banning it. Politifact rated Haley’s earlier attack as half true, noting DeSantis pushed to ban fracking but his hands were tied on oil drilling.

DeSantis on Wednesday said there would definitely be fracking in his energy policy but said he disagreed with Haley on drilling in Florida. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to drill in the Florida Everglades and I know most Floridians agree with me,” he said.

A bellicose, military-minded Republican field — mostly

Most of the Republican field was sounding a hawkish tone on foreign policy and the southern border, suggesting the US military could possibly engage Iran and supporting buildups in the South China Sea to deter China.

When it came to Israel, both DeSantis and Haley used similar language about Hamas, saying they’d advise Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish” the terrorist group.


Both also rejected the idea of supporting humanitarian pauses in the war, as the death toll in Gaza has topped 10,000, according to Hamas-controlled Gazan authorities.

On Iran, Haley and DeSantis also indicated they might be willing to engage the US military in a conflict with the country that has long sought nuclear capabilities and antagonized the United States through proxies, some attacks having recently injured American troops abroad.

“I would say, you harm a hair on the head of an American service member and you will have hell to pay,” DeSantis said.

Haley suggested taking out Iran’s infrastructure, adding, “You punch them once and you punch them hard, and they will back off.”

DeSantis once again repeated his plan to send troops to the southern border to treat drug-smuggling groups as terrorists, and Christie suggested building up nuclear submarines in the South China Sea to deter China from trying to invade Taiwan.

Only Ramaswamy represented the more Trump-centric isolationist views in the former president’s absence, attacking a “neocon establishment of the past” that “spent trillions, kills millions.” He disparaged defense contractors and Haley’s service on Boeing’s board, which was brief, and called her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels,” an epithet he implicitly extended to DeSantis by adding, “We’ve got two of them on stage tonight.” It was a reference to a report that DeSantis may wear height boosters in his boots.


Little soul-searching onstage after election losses

In the wake of a series of abortion-rights election wins on Tuesday, the Republican candidates largely maintained their positions against abortion, mostly dodging the idea that their party’s position is toxic with voters.

Scott reiterated a call for a national ban on abortions after 15 weeks, and DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban in Florida, blamed Republicans (and earlier, Trump) for not having a good answer to the voter-driven initiatives to codify abortion rights. Haley and Christie took a more middle-ground approach, punting the issue to states and whatever voters can stomach, even as they oppose abortion. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, blamed Republican Party leadership and a “culture of losing,” calling for “sexual responsibility for men.”

None acknowledged that Republican talking points, even the ones they were deploying, have failed to attract voters and have left conservatives searching for how to continue their cause.

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Tal Kopan can be reached at Follow her @talkopan. Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at Follow him @JimPuzzanghera. Jackie Kucinich can be reached at Follow her @JFKucinich and on Instagram at @JackieKucinich.