A slimmed-down field of GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage in Miami on Wednesday for a third primary debate.
Only five candidates qualified for the clash: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
The debate was again defined by the absence of former President Trump, who instead held his own rally in nearby Hialeah. There, he was endorsed by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), who first came to national prominence as Trump’s White House press secretary.
Here are the winners and losers from the night.
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.
“You’re just scum.”
It is an unlikely line with which to win a debate, but it was easily the most memorable moment from Wednesday night — and one that will dominate TV news coverage in the aftermath.
It was uttered by Haley after Ramaswamy — for whom her disdain is evident — went after her on the specious basis that Haley’s daughter uses TikTok, even as the candidate inveighs against its dangers.
It was a disastrous misjudgment from Ramaswamy, and Haley’s scornful response will surely have resonated with many viewers, especially parents.
In general, Haley showed herself — again — to be the most accomplished debater in the field. Her strong performances in the previous two encounters have been catalysts to lift her in the polls. Now, after three debates, she is 3-0.
Wednesday’s debate was the first since an Oct. 7 Hamas attack killed around 1,400 Israelis, starting a new and gruesome phase of the decades-long conflict.
Much of the opening stretches of the debate were devoted to foreign affairs — Ukraine as well as Israel — which plays to Haley’s strengths.
Later, she was also fluent and poised on inflation, social security reform and, particularly, abortion.
Her nuanced position on abortion is also looking electorally perceptive in the wake of GOP losses in Tuesday’s off-year elections. Those defeats were driven in part by voter resistance to hard-line anti-abortion positions.
Haley was targeted at times by DeSantis as well as Ramaswamy, but she was never damaged.
The attacks themselves underlined that the former South Carolina governor, rising in the polls, is the Trump-alternative most feared by the rest of the field.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the third Republican presidential primary debate at the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
DeSantis has not had a happy campaign. For months, he drifted downward in the polls while supporters caviled about the lack of a clear message, and, on one occasion, he had to lay off staff.
He did not have any single transformative moment Wednesday, but it was his best debate performance so far.
He voiced the vigorous backing of Israel that many Republican voters seem to crave, while being markedly more skeptical of continued aid to Ukraine.
On domestic issues, he held his own in exchanges about the fentanyl crisis and other topics.
Above all, DeSantis was not a bystander at this debate, as he was in previous ones.
It wasn’t a game-changer, but it was good enough for the Florida governor in his home state.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at The Ted Hendricks Stadium at Henry Milander Park on November 8, 2023 in Hialeah, Florida. (Photo by Alon Skuy/Getty Images)
Trump’s decision to avoid the debates, like it or not, has been a strategic success.
The former president holds an enormous lead in the polls; in the national polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight, Trump leads the second-placed DeSantis by 43 points. Even in Iowa, a state Trump lost in 2016 and where his rivals think he is most vulnerable, he has a 28-point lead.
By avoiding the debates, Trump removes the risk that any of his rivals can land a serious blow on him — and there is the added advantage that they tend to squabble with each other.
The only danger for Trump is some kind of seismic moment arising that could fundamentally alter the race.
That didn’t happen Wednesday.
NBC News and its moderators
(From L) Former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and US Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott attend the third Republican presidential primary debate at the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The debate was relatively orderly and substantive, thanks in part to nimble moderation from Lester Holt and Kristen Welker, both of NBC News.
One interesting gambit was to not let every candidate who was mentioned by a rival respond instantly. In theory, that sounds risky. In practice, it allowed for more actual debating while cutting down, a bit, on performative snideness.
Welker even took an anti-media tirade from Ramaswamy in stride early on.
The result was a debate that served voters well on topics as disparate as Ukraine, the addiction crisis and abortion.
MIAMI, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 08: Republican presidential candidate former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on November 8, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Five presidential hopefuls squared off in the third Republican primary debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined again to participate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Gauging a Christie performance in this year’s primary is always difficult because of the strange fundamental dynamics.
He’s a former governor of a large, blue state, and someone who possesses obvious political skills.
Yet, he also has a vanishingly small chance of becoming the nominee, because he is the most vigorously anti-Trump candidate of a party whose activist base remains loyal to the former president.
Christie put in another solid debate performance Wednesday, where he talked about everything from a proposed ban on TikTok to the need to maintain a robust fleet of nuclear submarines as a deterrent to China.
He also took fewer swings at Trump, which helped him avoid getting drowned out by boos as has happened at other points during his campaign.
The bottom line, though, is none of it is likely to do him much good in the race for the nomination.
Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.
Ramaswamy’s two most memorable moments of the night were both bad ones for him.
The attack on Haley’s daughter was the worst of all, playing into the existing negative perceptions of the businessman as an obnoxious and sometimes-nasty opportunist.
The misstep also seemed virtually guaranteed to earn the enmity of the suburban women voters whom the GOP badly needs to win.
Ramaswamy’s other big bad moment came when he called Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a “Nazi.”
There are plenty of GOP voters who are reluctant to keep sending money to Ukraine at the same cadence as before. But even many of them may recoil at such a label being affixed to a Jewish man leading his nation’s resistance to Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion.
Ramaswamy seeks, and gets, a lot of attention for a man who has never held any office and is polling at about 5 percent nationally.
On Wednesday, his troll-like approach finally went too far.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Scott has so far failed to come close to meeting the high hopes his supporters had when he entered the race in May.
It’s not that Scott has ever made huge gaffes. He’s just never sparked excitement or shown much sign of traction.
His third debate performance was as inoffensive but low-wattage as the previous two.
Scott came to the stage badly needing to make an impact.
He didn’t, and the murmurs that he should consider exiting the race will only grow louder.