Five Republican presidential candidates gathered on Wednesday for the party’s latest debate, as they face the urgent task of emerging as a clear alternative to former President Donald Trump. Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the race, chose to skip the event, citing his polling advantage. Despite his absence, the debate featured noteworthy confrontations on various topics including the Israel-Hamas war, abortion rights, and Trump himself. However, with the Iowa caucuses approaching on January 15, it is unlikely that the debate fundamentally changed the presidential nomination fight.
The foreign policy debate took center stage during the event, as it was the first time the candidates gathered on a debate stage since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. The contenders expressed robust support for Israel and condemned antisemitism, particularly on liberal college campuses. However, they said very little about protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The familiar foreign policy split within the GOP resurfaced when discussions shifted to the war in Ukraine, the possibility of China confronting Taiwan, and how to handle Venezuela’s oil market. While some candidates echoed traditional GOP views, others tried to set themselves apart by criticizing the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. The divide over the Ukraine war among the candidates highlighted the uncertainty of their actions if they were to become president.
All of the candidates are vying to overtake Trump, who remains the dominant front-runner in the primary. However, throughout the primary campaign, they have avoided directly confronting the former president. This changed during the debate hosted by NBC News, as moderators pressed the candidates to explain why they, and not Trump, should become the Republican nominee. While there was no robust takedown of Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made the most forceful remarks, stating that Trump owed it to Republican primary voters to show up and explain his record. Despite these comments, the lack of pointed attacks against Trump during the debate highlighted the difficulty of attacking someone who is not present. Trump’s decision to skip the debates may have been a strategic move on his part.
One of the most notable feuds during the debate was between former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. The tension between the two candidates intensified, with Ramaswamy taking several digs at Haley and even making a shocking attack involving her daughter’s use of the Tik-Tok app. Ramaswamy’s pugnacious style has dominated all three debates, although it has not necessarily helped him politically. His aggressive attacks have drowned out the other candidates and irritated his rivals. However, Ramaswamy’s path to victory in the primary remains unlikely.
The issue of abortion also took center stage during the debate, with Haley offering a softer and more personal approach compared to the male candidates. Haley emphasized that she respected the decisions of states to protect abortion rights, even if she personally disagreed with them. She called for a focus on achievable goals such as a ban on late-term abortions, policies that encourage adoption, and increased accessibility of contraception. While Haley’s message may resonate with some suburban women, it differs from the views of many Republican activists who make up the party’s base. Nonetheless, her answer during the debate reminded Democratic officials of her potential as a strong opponent to President Joe Biden.
Overall, the Republican presidential contest appears to be primarily a race to finish a distant second, as no candidate comes close to challenging Trump’s dominance. Instead of trying to catch up to him, the candidates are focused on positioning themselves as the best alternative should anything sideline Trump. Even Christie, who based his entire campaign on being the only Republican willing to challenge Trump, struggled to gain traction during the debate. The race for second place highlights the difficulty the candidates face in standing out from the pack.