The third Republican presidential debate was more sedate and more substantive than the previous two — but, unfortunately for the candidates onstage, it does not seem likely to be any more consequential.
The lineup was winnowed down to five candidates, each of whom got to make their pitch. The NBC News moderators — Lester Holt, Kristen Welker, and Hugh Hewitt — kept proceedings under control, and asked mostly decent, issues-based questions.
But it was hard to see why any of it mattered. Here’s one telling stat: If supporters of the five candidates onstage were all combined, they’d make up 33 percent of the national Republican electorate, according to polls. Donald Trump, in comparison, has the support of 56 percent of Republicans, meaning he has a massive lead over, well, everyone else put together.
So it was hard to see how this debate was any more worthwhile than, say, a policy discussion with five Republican politicians chosen at random. No one particularly helped their chances of taking down Trump. Really, they all lost — just as they’re all losing the presidential primary. But they lost in different ways.
Loser: Vivek Ramaswamy
Now that the novelty of Ramaswamy’s candidacy has worn off, the businessman has struggled to come up with ways to remain relevant, and he rolled out a few new tricks during the debate.
Ramaswamy used part of his scattershot opening statement to try to attack Welker, the moderator, demanding she answer whether she now believes the Trump-Russia scandal was a hoax. (Welker didn’t engage.) He also said that, rather than NBC News, the debate should have been moderated by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and Elon Musk. (Teddy Schleifer of Puck News has reported that “Elon is now expected by Vivek aides to make a significant contribution” to a dark money group backing Ramaswamy.)
Later, while debating foreign policy, Ramaswamy continued to emphasize his contrast with the other candidates onstage, complaining about the “neocon establishment” and claiming the Ukraine hawks were “quietly tiptoeing back now that this thing has turned out to a disaster.” He also rolled out a clearly preplanned line attacking Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley: “Do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels? In which case we’ve got two of them onstage tonight.” (The reference is to widespread theories that DeSantis wears height-increasing boots to make himself appear taller.)
But Ramaswamy himself can’t really resist taking a low blow. During a question about whether TikTok should be banned, Ramaswamy complained that Haley, in the last debate, “made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time. So you might want to take care of your family first.” Boos from the audience ensued, and Haley called him “scum.” His schtick has gotten old.
Loser: Tim Scott
For most of the debate, as Haley, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy sniped at one another, Scott seemed pretty irrelevant, delivering answers with an amiable demeanor that didn’t seem to compel a response. Tellingly, when he seemed to propose going to war with Iran — “You actually have to cut off the head of the snake, and the head of the snake is Iran and not simply their proxies” — no one really cared enough to push back.
Yet when the questioning turned to abortion, Scott caused a bit of drama. The South Carolina senator has been hoping to appeal to conservative evangelical Christians in Iowa by promising them the moon on abortion restrictions. “I would certainly, as president of the United States, have a 15-week national limit,” he said — in other words, a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. “I would challenge both Nikki and Ron to join me at a 15-week limit.” Haley scoffed, claiming she’d sign whatever could pass the Senate but arguing that Scott knew full well such a measure could never overcome a filibuster.
In the narrow sense of appealing to anti-abortion Iowans, Scott probably gave the more effective answer in telling them what they want to hear. Yet he tightly embraced a cause that again and again has been a loser for Republicans in general elections. Such a position could well doom a Tim Scott general election presidential bid, in either 2024 or 2028 — and it makes him a less attractive vice presidential pick for someone like Trump as well.
Loser: Chris Christie
Christie said in his closing statement that he was running for America because he was “tired.” He clarified that he was tired of seeing division, anger, and pettiness dominating politics. But Christie also seemed tired in the more typical sense — he didn’t appear particularly fired up about a presidential bid that seems to be going nowhere.
The core of Christie’s political appeal as a governor candidate and then governor of New Jersey was really about him being an obnoxious loudmouth who convinced voters he was on their side — but Trump owns that lane in the current GOP. Christie’s 2024 candidacy had the theoretical rationale that he was a fighter who could get under Trump’s skin and bait him into making mistakes (since Christie had famously caused Marco Rubio to “short-circuit” during a 2016 debate) — but since Trump hasn’t shown up, he hasn’t been able to do that.
So Christie has been casting about for a rationale about what he’s doing in the race. His attempt to brand himself as the responsible establishment figure the party should return to hasn’t caught on. Picking fights with Ramaswamy and DeSantis doesn’t really get him anywhere. So what’s the point?
Loser: Nikki Haley
Haley is having a moment, some commentators claim. What that means in concrete terms is that, according to Iowa and New Hampshire polls, she’s now neck-and-neck with DeSantis — and that, like DeSantis, she is about 30 percentage points behind Trump. (Nationally, she’s gone from 6 percent support to 9 percent in polling averages.)
Well, she sparred with DeSantis over abstruse state policies regarding China — each accused the other of, in essence, being a phony China hawk while governor. She tangled with Scott over abortion, complaining that he wasn’t being “honest” about the prospects for a national abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
And, of course, she let her contempt for Ramaswamy show — particularly in criticizing his opposition to arming Ukraine. Vladimir Putin was “salivating at the thought that someone like that could become president,” she said, calling Ukraine “a freedom-loving, pro-American country that is fighting for its survival and its democracy.”
None of this should make Trump lose any sleep at night. Marginal increases of support aren’t enough — Haley needs to try to knock her other rivals out of the race, to get that one-on-one shot against Trump. But those rivals don’t seem to be in a hurry to wind down their campaigns, and Haley didn’t perform well enough Wednesday to force them to do so anytime soon.
Loser: Ron DeSantis
DeSantis’s campaign has had little good news in the past several months. Once thought to be a formidable challenger for Trump, the Florida governor saw his poll performance shrink dramatically, leading donors to abandon him and politicos to speculate how long he’d stay in the race. But on Monday, he finally got a nice headline. Like Scott, DeSantis is focused on performing well in the Iowa caucuses, and now, the state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, has endorsed him. His team evidently hoped this would be the start of a DeSantis turnaround.
But it was an uneventful debate for DeSantis. He played it safe again, taking only the most careful shots at Trump. “Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” he said early on, adding that Trump should explain why he didn’t get Mexico to pay for the wall, reduce the debt, or drain the swamp — and why Republicans keep losing elections.
He didn’t prosecute that case further as the debate went on, though. And at this point, he really needs to be taking that more aggressive stance. The clock is ticking — the Iowa caucuses are just over two months away. If there’s any hope for disproving the now nearly-universal belief that the 2024 GOP primaries will just be a coronation for Trump, it has to happen soon.