But it didn’t last. Instead, the duration of the night was spent on foreign policy, or President Joe Biden, or in combat with Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur.
Coming one day after GOP losses in the off-year elections, the third debate offered the candidates an opportunity to go after Trump. But asked in their closing statements to explain why Republican primary voters should choose them over him, not a single candidate mentioned the former president by name.
We asked five POLITICO campaign reporters for their takeaways from the third Republican primary debate of the 2024 campaign.
Who had the best night? Who had the worst night?
Steve Shepard: I typically wouldn’t choose the candidate who faced the most arrows on stage — but because so many of the attacks on Haley came from the thirsty and abrasive Ramaswamy, it served to elevate her. Haley is also the most adept on stage at needling her fellow candidates. She has the oppo ready: On abortion, her fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott appeared blindsided when she invoked the bill proposed last year by Scott’s seatmate in the Senate, Lindsey Graham.
The worst night is not a close call. Immediately ditching the faux humility of the candidates’ last gathering, Ramaswamy used his first response to dare Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chair, to come up on stage and explain why the GOP lost some of the most prominent off-year elections this week, and insult co-moderator Kristen Welker. In his second answer, he called two of the other debaters — DeSantis and Haley, presumably — “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” And most viewers will find invoking Haley’s daughter in defending the social media app TikTok distasteful.
There’s a reason Ramaswamy’s negatives keep spiking — and his vote share keeps plummeting — in polls of Republican primary voters. Wednesday night’s performance won’t reverse that trend.
Natalie Allison: Putting aside my main observation of the night — that this debate felt removed from the reality that the Republican primary field has yet to make a successful case for dumping Trump — the biggest winner was still Haley. She managed to articulate her policy positions, defend her record, attack her primary rivals and deliver headline-making lines. DeSantis held his own on foreign policy and the rest of his platform, but failed in any memorable way to weaken Haley, his top rival in the undercard race.
As for who struggled tonight? Chris Christie, like others on stage, gave detailed policy responses, but he passed on a number of opportunities to go after Trump in the way that he usually seems so eager to do. Yes, there’s an argument to be made that these candidates should focus on their own visions for the future of the GOP and not spend all their time talking about Trump. But that approach still hasn’t made a dent in Trump’s seemingly insurmountable lead. (He also repeatedly called moderator Kristen Welker “Kirsten,” which seems like an easily avoidable mistake.)
Adam Wren: I politely disagree with Natalie. Was Christie better than Haley? Probably not. But at times, particularly early in the night, he struck me as calm and presidential, in a way that made the rest of the field seem somewhat small. Haley needed to win; DeSantis needed to attack Haley; Ramaswamy just… needed.
Christie, for his part, didn’t need anything but to just be Christie. Consider his aside on China, for example, noting that “the three in the middle think they’re the enemy. I know China is the enemy. And that’s what we should be focused on.” The worst night? Tim Scott. He disappeared for large stretches of the debate. But how about the very end, as he clutched the hand of a blond woman next to him, in what sure seemed like a soft-launch of his long-bandied-about but never revealed girlfriend.
Sally Goldenberg: Haley had a good night. She withstood criticisms from her rivals, namely Ramaswamy, without flinching, and she challenged moderators when she wasn’t given an opportunity to respond to direct attacks. She demonstrated her foreign policy chops when discussing China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East. She also articulated an intentionally-vague answer on abortion which — while devoid of specifics — may appeal to independent and moderate voters who have made clear their opposition to stringent abortion bans in elections since the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Scott had an unimpressive night — not because he made any obvious mistakes, but because he gave several long-winded answers and didn’t have many memorable moments. Given his low standing in the polls, he needs as many break-out opportunities as he can get. On Wednesday night, he didn’t deliver that.
Kimberly Leonard: Since launching her campaign, Haley climbed her way up to a close contest with DeSantis to tie for second place, even surpassing him in some early voting states. Her performance on Wednesday showed why she was able to do that. Throughout the event, Haley was calm and often shrugged off her rivals’ positions, then snapped back at them when they lobbed personal attacks her way.
To top it all off, a debate largely focused on foreign policy allowed Haley to not just talk about her record as U.N. ambassador, but to criticize Biden’s record and talk about how she would make different choices as president. At a time when voters are showing in ballots across the U.S. that they want abortion to remain legal, she also took a consensus-finding stance on abortion relative to others on stage.
Another thing that helps establish Haley as a contender? The Trump campaign attacked her in a post-debate statement, in addition to DeSantis.
The Republican Party had the worst night, especially given that the debate was coming off Tuesday’s elections where Democrats had a better night. The party seems fractured and the candidates still struggle to paint a picture of what a post-Trump party could look like and how they’d unite after voters pick a nominee.
What surprised you most during the debate?
Leonard: That it took so long for Haley and DeSantis to jump into a cage fight — and a tame one at that. Viewers knew headed into this debate that DeSantis and Haley were the ones to watch, given that they’ve been running ads against each other and polls show they’re in a close race for second place nationally. But it took 45 minutes for DeSantis to go after Haley. When he did, he criticized her for praising a fiberglass company with ties to China when she was governor, after it brought business to South Carolina a decade ago.
Haley wasn’t able to respond until 15 minutes later, which avoided an acrimonious back and forth. She also launched her own attack on DeSantis for opposing fracking in Florida and for being “liberal” on the environment. It was surprising that when they did argue, neither candidate attacked each other’s more recent records. It didn’t help that NBC’s debate format kept candidates from responding to attacks.
Allison: In fairness, Ramaswamy alerted a reporter ahead of time that he planned to “be unhinged” on the debate stage. But I now have whiplash from watching him at these debates, when he introduced himself to viewers in August as an attack dog, walked that strategy back during the second debate and pleaded for everyone to simply get along, and then this time once again was initiating and hurling the most insults.
Wren: Natalie makes a smart point. My jaw dropped when Ramaswamy brought up Haley’s daughter’s presence on TikTok. Ramaswamy has children, too, and is rightly protective of them as he campaigns for president. And then, my jaw dropped a little more when Haley called him “scum” in response.
Shepard: I was most surprised that outside of a couple of isolated flashpoints, the DeSantis-Haley showdown never really materialized. It’s not to DeSantis’ benefit that Ramaswamy grabbed the mantle as Haley’s chief antagonist.
Goldenberg: DeSantis never mentioned that he scored the coveted endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this week. After months of falling in the polls, shedding campaign staff and trying to quell nervous donors, DeSantis finally had a great moment when he won the hearty backing of the popular governor whose state kicks off the GOP contest in January. So it was odd he didn’t devote any time during the two-hour debate to mention that.
I was also surprised that the candidates — other than DeSantis — did not go after Biden more.
Did anything we saw tonight hurt Donald Trump?
Goldenberg: Not really. DeSantis gave it a shot when he saddled Trump with the Republican losses at the ballot boxes this week. But, despite having new material for that line of attack, it’s the same criticism he and others have made throughout the primary, and it has yet to erode Trump’s enormous polling lead. So there’s no evidence yet that it will be different this time.
Leonard: Trump was across town in Hialeah during the debate, off making his own headlines about MAGA’s resonance with the Cuban community in South Florida. That alone showed that he was already fighting a general-election battle two months before the Iowa caucuses.
While candidates differentiated themselves from Trump at the start of the debate thanks to an opening question that specifically asked them to do just that, they failed to consistently weave contrasts with Trump throughout the rest of the debate.
They could have raised his criticism about Benjamin Netanyahu when asked to speak to the war in Israel, or his criticisms of anti-abortion organizations or the indictments he’s facing in multiple jurisdictions. Trump is a distant frontrunner in the race, yet his rivals are still largely focused on comparing themselves to each other rather than showing how they can beat him.
Allison: The candidates tonight went out of their way to try to demonstrate a firm grasp on foreign policy. For the most part, they gave detailed, specific responses to questions about China, Ukraine, Iran and more, in ways that Trump rarely ever does. But there has never been any indication that today’s Republican primary voters are looking for an expert on the size of China’s naval fleet, so it’s unlikely this contrast with Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric does him any harm. If anything, his lack of nuance when discussing international issues seems to be the more popular approach with the GOP electorate.
Shepard: Nothing the candidates said on stage will hurt Trump. I am curious about the ratings for the debate — unlike the first two, it aired on broadcast TV, which tends to mean a bigger audience.
Then again, Trump doesn’t regret skipping the first debate, which garnered relatively high ratings.
How will this debate change the trajectory of the race?
Goldenberg: It probably won’t.
Leonard: Plenty of strategists on both sides of the aisle were spooked when a New York Times/Siena College poll on Sunday showed Trump winning against Biden in key early voting states. That made it look like Trump was a lock for the nomination. Then this week’s election happened, where Democrats and issues such as abortion rights won at the ballot box.
That event will probably have a bigger effect on the trajectory of the race. After those election results, big donors were closely watching how DeSantis and Haley performed as they continue to decide on a backup.
Allison: There will be a couple point shift in margin between some of these candidates — as there was after the first two debates — and still Trump’s 30-point lead will remain firm.
Wren: I agree with Natalie that any trajectory change after tonight in the race is likely marginal. But let’s assume this debate was about the race between Haley and DeSantis for second place. Haley got the better of DeSantis: There’s an authenticity there — a real human behind that podium. She comes across as much less rehearsed than DeSantis. Also: DeSantis went after Haley unprompted, the first time I can remember him doing that to a candidate in the three debates we’ve had so far. He’s threatened by her.
Shepard: The overall trajectory? No. But the polling threshold is going up for the next debate, from 4 percent to 6 percent. That’s a mark that Christie and Scott haven’t been hitting. And I’m not sure they did enough tonight to secure their spot on stage on Dec. 6 in Alabama — though Scott’s post-debate girlfriend reveal might keep him in the headlines for a while.
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