“We’ve become a party of losers,” the conservative businessman Vivek Ramaswamy declared during the opening minutes of tonight’s Republican primary debate in Florida. He bemoaned the GOP’s lackluster performance in Tuesday’s elections, and then he identified the Republican he held personally responsible for the party’s defeats. Was this the moment, a viewer might have wondered, that a top GOP presidential contender would finally take on Donald Trump, the absent frontrunner who hasn’t deigned to join his rivals on the debate stage?
Of course not.
Ramaswamy proceeded to blame not the GOP’s undisputed leader for the past seven years but Ronna McDaniel, the party functionary unknown to most Americans who chairs the Republican National Committee. After calling on McDaniel to resign, Ramaswamy then attacked one of the debate moderators, Kristen Welker of NBC News, before turning his ire on two of his onstage competitors, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.
The moment was a fitting encapsulation of a debate that, like the first two Republican primary match-ups, all but ignored the candidate who wasn’t there. Five Republicans stood on the Miami stage tonight—Ramaswamy, Haley, DeSantis, Chris Christie, and Tim Scott—and none of them are likely to be elected president next year. The candidate of either party most likely to win the election is Trump, who held a rally a half hour away. His putative challengers barely uttered his name.
NBC’s moderators tried to force the issue at the start. Lester Holt asked each of the candidates to explain why they should be president and Trump should not. Haley and DeSantis, who are now Trump’s closest competitors (a modest distinction), offered some mild criticism. The Florida governor chastised Trump for increasing the national debt and failing to get Mexico to pay for his Southern border wall. “I thought he was the right president at the right time. I don’t think he’s the right president now,” was the most that Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, could muster. Only Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has become Trump’s fiercest GOP critic on the campaign trail, assailed the former president with any relish. “Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year-and-a-half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail cannot lead this party or this country,” Christie said.
And with that, Trump became an afterthought for the remainder of the debate. The evening featured plenty of substance, as the candidates offered mostly robust defenses of Israel in its war with Hamas, denounced rising anti-Semitism on college campuses, and disputed how much support the U.S. should give Ukraine. At the behest of moderator Hugh Hewitt, they spent several minutes discussing the optimal size of America’s naval fleet.
The spiciest exchanges involved Ramaswamy and Haley, who made no effort to hide their disdain for one another. Ramaswamy drew boos from the audience after he criticized Haley’s hawkish foreign policy by calling her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” Later he invoked her daughter’s use of TikTok to accuse her of hypocrisy on China’s ownership of the social-media platform. “Keep my daughter’s name out of your voice,” Haley shot back. “You’re just scum.” Ramaswamy and Haley also went after DeSantis, though in less personal terms.
That Ramaswamy would target Haley was not a surprise. She came into the debate as the challenger of the moment, having displaced Ramaswamy, whose candidacy has lost momentum since his breakout performance in the first GOP primary debate in August. He can partly blame Haley for his slide: Her mocking retort—“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber”—was the highlight of the last everyone-but-Trump pile-up in September. The former South Carolina governor’s consistency across both debates has helped her overtake DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire and gain on him in Iowa. Haley also fared the best in a hypothetical general-election match-up with Biden in a batch of swing-state polls released this week by The New York Times and Siena College.
As my colleague Elaine Godfrey reported this week, Haley is appealing to primary voters who are “yearning for a standard-issue Republican”—a tax-cutting, socially conservative foreign-policy hawk who won’t have to spend the next several months fighting felony charges in courtrooms up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Her performance tonight—as steady as during the first two debates—seems unlikely to hurt her standing. The problem for Haley, as for the other contenders on tonight’s stage, is that less than half of the GOP electorate wants a standard-issue Republican. Trump still has a tight grip on a majority of GOP voters, and his lead over Biden in recent polling undermines his rivals’ argument that his nomination could cost the party next year’s election.
If nothing else, each of these Trump-less debates offers his opponents a free shot to make the case against him, a platform to criticize the frontrunner without facing an immediate rebuttal. For the third time in a row, Haley and her competitors mostly passed up their chance. If they’re angling to be Trump’s running mate or emergency replacement, perhaps they’ve advanced their cause. But if their goal is to dislodge Trump as the nominee, opportunities like tonight’s are slipping away.