Five Republicans will take the stage Wednesday night in Miami for the third Republican presidential primary debate. The group is the smallest to qualify for the debate stage so far, but it is unclear whether the increased airtime for the shrinking group will fundamentally change the fight for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Donald Trump remains the overwhelming frontrunner in the race. He has decided to skip this debate since he has the top two, citing his large poll advantage. Almost exactly a year after he launched his 2024 election campaign, there is still no clear Trump alternative.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was expected to take on the role earlier this year, is in a bitter battle for the No. 2 spot. He’s betting that a strong debate performance – two days after winning the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds – will help convince a skeptical Republican that he has fully recovered from his early stumbles.
Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and the only woman in the field, is gaining attention after two heated debates of her own. Another big debate appearance could give her a leg up on DeSantis.
Don’t forget 38-year-old conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, an avid debater who played a central role in the first two meetings. And look to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott to try to stand out in what could be their last chances on the debate stage.
This is what we’ll watch on Wednesday evening:
How does Israel fit into the Republicans’ “America First” message?
The war between Israel and Hamas had not yet broken out when Republicans last met on the debate stage. Even then, foreign policy was a flashpoint, as foreign policy hawks like Haley insisted on strong support for Ukraine while DeSantis and Ramaswamy, inclined to Trump’s “America First” populism, called for less foreign intervention.
Israel’s politics are different.
DeSantis already appears to be aligning himself with Haley and the others who have called for unconditional support for Israel. Ramaswamy may be the only participant to argue for limited U.S. support for Israel, consistent with his argument against aid to Ukraine. Polls suggest such a position could be reasonably popular with the Republican base, even if it is out of step with evangelicals and some members of the Republican donor class.
Can Haley take a big step forward?
It’s easy to see the fight over Israel becoming a dominant theme – especially with the Republican Jewish Coalition co-sponsoring the event.
Haley is gaining attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, but she has not yet emerged as a clear alternative to Trump.
The 51-year-old former governor of South Carolina has a chance to take a big step forward on Wednesday evening. Of course, her rivals won’t make it easy for her.
With increased focus on her candidacy, Haley enters the night with a target on her back, much like DeSantis did in the first debate and Ramaswamy in the second. She hopes to do what her rivals couldn’t as their moments came and went.
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Current events seem to be playing to their strength.
As a former ambassador to the United Nations, Haley has more foreign policy experience than anyone on the stage. This was evident in previous debates, particularly in clashes against Ramaswamy when the discussion centered on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Haley’s penchant for a forceful foreign policy could have even bigger implications for Israel.
Still, it’s unclear whether a single issue will be enough to convince donors and voters alike that they should unite behind her as a clear alternative to Trump. DeSantis and others make broadly the same pitch.
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The longer it takes for Republicans to unite behind a single Trump alternative, the stronger Trump’s influence on the nomination will become.
It’s hard to forget (as much as we’d like to) Marco Rubio’s desperate attempt to unseat Trump by insulting his masculinity during a 2016 presidential primary debate.
DeSantis may be laying the groundwork for something similar.
Of course, it didn’t end well for Rubio. The Florida senator had to pause his presidential campaign less than two weeks after suggesting that Trump had little hand in the debate.
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Despite Rubio’s ouster, DeSantis has repeatedly questioned in recent days whether Trump has “the guts” to face the debate. The Florida governor’s campaign is even selling a set of golf balls as part of the messaging campaign.
It’s probably all little more than a fundraising program. But the rhetoric highlights a fundamental dilemma facing every Trump rival: If multiple felony indictments, an attack on democracy and countless documented lies on issues big and small don’t undermine Trump’s candidacy, what will?
Trump’s opponents made half-hearted attacks on his policies in the first two debates. Most of them also raised their hands to say they would support him even if he were a convicted criminal. Whatever they’re doing doesn’t seem to be working.
We’ll see if DeSantis tries something different.
Will they help — or hurt — the GOP’s Hispanic outreach efforts?
Hosting Wednesday’s debate in Miami all but ensures that the candidates will face pressure given the Republican Party’s strained relationship with Latino voters.
Latino voters have overwhelmingly supported Democrats in recent decades, and they still do, despite fears that the growing voting bloc – particularly young men – is drifting to the right. Debate participants now have an opportunity to help — or damage — the Republicans’ appeal among Latinos.
All Republican candidates are eager to talk about the need to crack down on illegal immigration, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border. They have been far less willing to outline clear plans for the more than 10 million immigrants living in the country illegally, including many children brought to the country by their parents. Some, particularly DeSantis, have promoted policies aimed at making life in the U.S. more difficult for such immigrants.
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DeSantis faced intense backlash from Florida’s immigrant community earlier this year after he signed a law restricting benefits for immigrants without permanent residency status. Another provision required hospitals that accept Medicaid to include a citizenship question on intake forms, which critics say is intended to deter immigrants living in the U.S. illegally from seeking medical care.
Watch for DeSantis and others to be pressured to defend such policies. As the Republican National Committee has recognized, tone matters when trying to connect with voters of color.
Last chance for Scott and others?
For some, this could be the last appearance in the debate.
Scott, in particular, could struggle to meet fundraising and polling thresholds set by the Republican National Committee for the Dec. 6 debate in Alabama, which requires participants to vote in two statewide polls or a combination of national and early primary polls in the 6 states % to reach. Christie might not make it either, while Ramaswamy is hovering around the 6% mark in some polls.
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This opportunity will create real urgency for lower tier candidates to excel.
Christie and Ramaswamy have shown their willingness to make a splash when given the opportunity. Scott was less comfortable with direct confrontation, preferring to stay true to his “happy warrior” profile.
But the prospect of elimination makes each of them a dangerous wild card for the other participants.