On his home turf at the Republican presidential debate in Miami, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sharpened his case against front-runner Donald Trump and tussled with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as she looked to build on her momentum.
Five candidates met on stage Wednesday night, just over two months before voting begins: DeSantis, Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Absent for the third time was Trump, the former president who is dominating the GOP polls so far — and continued his debate counterprogramming tradition with a rally in nearby Hialeah.
While DeSantis and Haley are competing for second place and a shot at being the main GOP alternative to Trump, the other three are fighting to keep their candidacies alive.
Here are some key takeaways from the debate.
‘I’m sick of Republican losing’: DeSantis and Co. sharpen their attacks on Trump
DeSantis used the first question to get right into his case against Trump before a larger audience, rattling off a litany of what he called Trump’s failures as president — and blaming him for a poor election night for the GOP on Tuesday.
“Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016. He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance,” DeSantis said. “He should explain why we didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp. And he said Republicans were gonna get tired of winning — what we saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing.”
Haley, who worked in Trump’s administration as ambassador to the United Nations, said Trump “was the right president at the right time; I don’t think he’s the right president now.”
Christie chimed in: “I’ll say this about Donald Trump: Anybody who’s 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.”
Ramaswamy goes negative and gets personal with Haley
Ramaswamy began throwing elbows at his first opportunity. He complained that NBC News was hosting the debate and that “Meet the Press” moderator Kristen Welker was asking questions. He tore into Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and blamed her for the GOP getting “trounced” in Tuesday’s elections and other elections since 2016 — conveniently leaving out that that timeline coincides with Trump’s rise.
Ramaswamy then knocked Haley as “Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels,” which drew some jeers and oohs from the crowd.
Haley brushed him off: “They’re 5-inch heels, and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” she said. She added: “They’re not a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.” Then she moved on.
Later, Ramaswamy attacked DeSantis and Haley for backing what he called “censorship” of student groups during a discussion about antisemitism on college campuses.
And he mentioned Haley when discussing Ukraine: “I’m actually enjoying watching the Ukraine hawks quietly, elegantly tiptoe back from their position as this thing has unwound into a disaster.”
Then Ramaswamy again took unprompted aim at Haley in the second hour of the debate, noting that her daughter was on TikTok. Haley responded: “Leave my daughter out of your voice.”
“You’re just scum,” she told him.
GOP candidates grapple with the party’s position on abortion
Asked about another defeat for abortion foes in Ohio on Tuesday, DeSantis emphasized his support for “a culture of life” and said that different states can set their own abortion laws. He signed a ban on abortion after six weeks in Florida.
“All this stuff that’s happened to the pro-life cause, they have been caught flat-footed on these referenda. And they have been losing,” he said, lamenting that conservatives are losing voters who support Republican candidates but also support abortion-rights measures.
Scott, meanwhile, called for a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks: “I would challenge Nikki and Ron to join me at a 15-week limit.”
That’s the same length as the state-level policy that Virginia Republicans campaigned on this year, but they lost both houses of the state Legislature on Tuesday.
Haley said Republicans won’t find the votes to “ban abortions” at the federal level. When pressed on whether she’d enact a 15-week abortion ban, she said: “I would support anything that would pass.”
Haley seeks to show her foreign policy chops
Haley, responding to one of many broadsides from Ramaswamy, said: “I’m telling you, Putin and President Xi are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president. They would love that.”
He sought to interrupt her, but she made her case for protecting Ukraine and bolstering international partnerships, arguing that a network of foreign foes would exploit weakness creeping into the nation’s commitment to its alliances.
“America can never be so arrogant to think we don’t need friends after 9/11. We need a lot of friends,” Haley said. “This unholy alliance between Russia, Ukraine and China is real. There is a reason the Taiwanese want us to support the Ukrainians; it’s because they know that China’s coming after them next. There is a reason Ukrainians want us to support Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins.”
Haley took multiple opportunities during the debate to promote her belief in an aggressive U.S. role in shaping global affairs. And she seemed to delight in smacking down Ramaswamy by associating him with Putin and Xi.
DeSantis and Haley clash over China and climate
The two highest-polling candidates on stage tussled over the biggest foreign policy concern in Washington: China. But the attacks largely pointed back to development in their own states, as opposed to disagreements over future foreign policy.
Haley took aim at DeSantis when discussing her plan to confront China economically. “We will go and end all formal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans from fentanyl, something Ron has yet to say that he’s going to do,” she said.
DeSantis hit back: “Ambassador Haley said somehow I wasn’t doing — she welcomed them into South Carolina, and gave them land near a military base, wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter saying what a great friend they were.” He said that in Florida, “I banned China from buying land in this state.”
Haley came back at the Florida governor: “Yes, I brought a fiberglass company 10 years ago to South Carolina. But Ron, you are the chair of your economic development agency that as of last week said Florida is the ideal place for Chinese businesses.”
Later, Haley took aim at DeSantis from the right on environmental policy. “He has opposed fracking, he’s opposed drilling,” Haley said. She called him “a liberal when it comes to the environment,” bringing up an argument she litigated at a previous debate, too.
DeSantis responded: “We are absolutely going to frack. But I disagree with Nikki Haley: I don’t think it’s a good idea to drill in the Florida Everglades, and I know most Floridians agree with me.”
A split on Medicare and Social Security
The candidates were split on whether to cut retirement benefits going forward.
Haley called for slashing long-term spending on Medicare and Social Security, calling for a higher retirement age, a slower rate of benefit growth and curtailing benefits to wealthy Americans.
“Any candidate that tells you that they’re not going to take on entitlements is not being serious. Social Security will go bankrupt in 10 years. Medicare will go bankrupt in eight. Right now, you have Ron and Trump joining Biden and Pelosi saying they’re not going to change or do any sort of entitlement reform,” she said.
DeSantis sidestepped the question by declining to endorse specific changes to Social Security or Medicare, calling for lowering inflation and boosting economic growth. He said life expectancy has declined in some recent years, so pegging benefits to that wouldn’t cut them.
“To seniors in America: Promise made, promise kept,” he said.