MIAMI, Nov 8 (Reuters) – For the third time, Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination took part in the debate on Wednesday evening in his absence, seeking a way to dislodge the former president from his dominant position in the opinion polls.
While contenders such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have briefly criticized Trump, the latest episode appears unlikely to change the dynamics of a race that Trump has dominated for months.
The candidates spent much of the two-hour event attacking each other as they strove to become Trump’s primary opponent with less than 10 weeks until the first wide-ranging nominating contest from Iowa State. They will have another opportunity on December 6, when a fourth debate takes place in Alabama.
For its part, Trump held a rival event nearby, where he mocked attendees and demanded that the Republican Party stop “wasting time” with “unwatchable” debates.
With only five candidates qualifying for the stage — DeSantis and Haley were joined by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — the meeting was less chaotic than previous ones.
But he still had his share of cut off trade.
At one point during a discussion about whether to ban TikTok, Ramaswamy noted that Haley’s daughter had used the app, prompting Haley to angrily warn him not to mention his daughter again .
“You’re scum,” she muttered.
Haley, who also served as governor of South Carolina, and DeSantis, who has been running second to Trump for most of the campaign, had their own conflict over which governor had been too welcoming to Chinese investment.
Recent polls have shown the two men vying for second place in early voting states.
Most candidates expressed support for banning TikTok, owned by a Chinese company, on national security grounds — even Ramaswamy, who defended using the app as a way to connect with young people Republican voters.
The debate opened with moderators asking the candidates to explain why they should be the party’s standard-bearer rather than Trump, giving them an opportunity to make their point directly to voters watching at home .
DeSantis criticized Trump for skipping the event, which took place in their shared home state of Florida, and suggested that the party’s poor showing in Tuesday’s off-year election should be blamed on Trump.
“He said Republicans were going to get tired of winning,” DeSantis said. “Well, we saw it last night: I’m tired of the Republicans losing!”
Haley offered a more muted critique.
“Everyone wants to talk about President Trump. I can tell you I think he was the right president at the right time,” she said. “I don’t think he’s the right president right now.”
Trump, 77, has done his best to deny his rivals a direct target, focusing instead on what he expects to be a rematch with Biden, 80, on Nov. 5, 2024.
As Wednesday’s debate progressed, the candidates largely avoided attacking Trump, whose grip on Republican voters has proven unshakeable, even in the face of his multiple indictments.
Instead, they turned their fire on Democratic President Joe Biden, particularly during a lengthy segment on foreign policy and the Israel-Hamas conflict. Republicans have all pledged unconditional support for Israel and criticized Biden’s handling of the crisis.
Asked what message they would send to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, DeSantis replied: “I will say to Bibi: ‘Finish the job once and for all on these Hamas butchers, they are terrorists,'” using the nickname of Netanyahu.
Haley, who has staked much of her candidacy on her foreign policy credentials, criticized Biden for pressing Israel to consider humanitarian pauses.
“The last thing we need to do is tell Israel what to do,” she said. “The only thing we should do is support them and eliminate Hamas.”
In addition to pushing for a tougher response abroad, the candidates pledged to punish Hamas sympathizers at home.
DeSantis, for example, promised to expel any students who expressed support for Hamas.
“If you are here on a student visa as a foreign national and you make common cause with Hamas, I will cancel your visa and send you home,” he said. “No questions asked.”
One day after Democrats and abortion rights groups carried to victory In several national elections, Republicans have sought to craft a winning message on an issue that has plagued the party since the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court struck down the nation’s right to abortion last year.
Scott said he would support a 15-week federal ban, while Haley stressed that such legislation had virtually no chance of passing the closely divided U.S. Senate. DeSantis — who signed a six-week ban this year — did not address the issue of a federal law but said he stood for a “culture of life.”
The candidates attacked Biden for his handling of the economy, arguing that a focus on climate change had slowed growth. Haley and Christie said they would raise the retirement age for Social Security benefits for younger workers to keep the program solvent, while Scott and DeSantis said they would not.
Polls show voters are unhappy with Biden’s economic record, despite the fact that inflation has slowed significantly and fears of a recession have faded amid continued economic growth. Biden’s approval rating fell below 40% in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, his lowest mark since April.
Reporting by James Oliphant in Miami, Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey and Tim Reid in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Eric Beech, Nathan Layne, Gram Slattery, Jasper Ward and Caitlin Webber; edited by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller
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