Five Republican presidential candidates in the United States have clashed in their latest debate over a host of issues, including the war in Gaza, immigration and their difficult quest to win the nomination against former President Donald Trump.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Senator Tim Scott sparred on the stage of the third debate of the campaign in Miami, Florida on Wednesday.
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The stage was downsized from the last debate in September with former Vice President Mike Pence suspending his campaign and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum failing to qualify.
Trump, who remains the distant frontrunner despite his mounting legal woes, once again decided to skip proceedings.
The war in Gaza and its international and domestic implications dominated the first part of the debate, but the candidates’ support for Israel kept resurfacing even when discussing other topics.
Haley and Ramaswamy – who remain longshot candidates – deepened their rivalry, exchanging jabs throughout the evening.
Scott, who cut a quiet figure in the previous debate, delivered a more assertive performance, claiming more speaking time.
DeSantis, long seen as the most serious threat to Trump’s grip on the party’s nomination, promoted his conservative record in Florida while criticising President Joe Biden’s policies.
Here are five key takeaways from the debate.
‘Finish them’: Pro-Israel stances
Despite Biden’s unwavering support for Israel, including pushing for more than $14bn in additional aid to the country, Republican candidates tried to outdo the Democratic president in backing the US ally.
DeSantis said he would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish the job once and for all” with Hamas.
“They’re terrorists. They’re massacring innocent people. They would wipe every Jew off the globe if they could,” he said.
Haley echoed the governor’s comment, saying she would also tell Netanyahu to “finish them”.
“It is not that Israel needs America. America needs Israel,” she said. “They are the tip of the spear when it comes to this Islamic terrorism and we need to make sure that we have their backs in that process.”
Ramaswamy also voiced support for Israel, but he distinguished himself from the rest of the pack by warning against US military involvement in the war.
“I want to be careful to avoid making the mistakes from the neo-con establishment of the past,” he said.
“Corrupt politicians in both parties spent trillions, killed millions, made billions for themselves in places like Iraq and Afghanistan – fighting wars that sent thousands of our sons and daughters, people my age, to die in wars that did not advance anyone’s interests.”
None of the candidates mentioned the words “Palestinians” or “Palestine” when addressing the crisis.
Hawkishness on Iran
The candidates also displayed hawkishness towards Iran as US troops face attacks from Tehran-allied groups in Iraq and Syria amid the war in Gaza.
Scott appeared to call for a direct show of force against Iran.
“You cannot just continue to have strikes in Syria on warehouses,” he said, referring to a US attack on an Iran-linked “weapons storage” facility in Syria earlier in the day.
“You actually have to cut off the head of the snake, and the head of the snake is Iran, and not simply the proxies.”
Haley also said she would take more forceful action against Iran and its allies.
“Iran responds to strike,” she said. “You punch them once, and you punch them hard, and they will back off.”
DeSantis also issued a threat to Iran when it comes to attacking US soldiers in the Middle East. “I would say to Iran: You harm a hair on the head of an American service member, and you are going to have hell to pay,” he said.
Chasm over Ukraine persists
As in previous debates, the candidates were divided over aid to Ukraine, with Ramaswamy voicing opposition to additional assistance to Kyiv, drawing criticism from fellow contenders.
Ramaswamy accused Ukraine of failing to be a democratic country, citing the consolidation of television channels into one state-run outlet and uncertainty over next year’s election. He also described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “comedian in cargo pants”.
“To frame this as some kind of battle between good versus evil, don’t buy it,” he said.
The US has provided Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars to fend off a full-scale Russian invasion that Moscow launched in February 2022.
Haley was quick to reject Ramaswamy’s position, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping would be “salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president” of the US.
The former US ambassador linked the conflict in Ukraine to the war in Gaza.
“There is a reason Ukrainians want us to support Israelis – because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins,” she said.
For his part, DeSantis criticised Biden’s request for more aid to Ukraine, calling for more resources to be dedicated to the competition with China in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We need to bring this war to an end,” he said of the Ukraine conflict. “We need the Europeans to step up and do their fair share.”
Focus on China
Amid the intensifying US competition with China, the candidates appeared to be in agreement over prioritising the Washington-Beijing rivalry.
Christie called China “the enemy”, saying he would bolster the US nuclear submarine arsenal to confront Beijing in case it decides to invade Taiwan.
“The nuclear submarines in the United States Navy [are] the greatest deterrent to Chinese aggression, and that is the first place I would go to increase American naval power,” he said.
For her part, Haley blamed China for bringing fentanyl – a deadly, powerful opioid – to the US.
“We will end all formal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans from fentanyl,” she said. The US imports more goods from China than any other country.
DeSantis warned that if China becomes the world’s leading superpower, it would affect Americans in direct ways. “They will export authoritarianism all around the world as the cost of doing business,” he said.
More arrows at Trump
With Trump leading the race by more than 50 percentage points to his closest rival according to some polls, the other candidates have a mountain to climb ahead of the first primary race in Iowa in January.
The former president is facing four sets of criminal charges, including over his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections.
On Wednesday, several candidates took aim directly at Trump, who had been largely spared serious attacks from rivals so far.
DeSantis hit out at Trump for refusing to attend the debates, invoking the former president’s unfulfilled promise to build a wall on the US’s southern border and have Mexico pay for it.
“He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance,” the Florida governor said of Trump. “He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt.”
Christie, a Trump critic, pointed to Trump’s legal troubles as well. “Anybody who is going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country,” he said.