In the absence of Donald Trump, his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination convened for the third time on Wednesday night, aiming to chip away at the former president’s strong lead in opinion polls.
While some contenders, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, briefly criticised Trump, the event seemed unlikely to reshape a race that Trump has dominated for months.
Candidates used the two-hour debate to criticise each other, vying to establish themselves as Trump’s primary opponent with less than 10 weeks remaining before the first statewide nominating contest in Iowa. Another opportunity for debate will arise on Dec. 6 in Alabama.
Meanwhile, Trump held a separate event nearby, ridiculing the participants and urging the Republican Party to cease “wasting time” on “unwatchable” debates.
With only five candidates qualifying for the stage—DeSantis, Haley, U.S. Senator Tim Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—it was less chaotic than previous encounters but still featured sharp exchanges.
During a discussion on whether to ban TikTok, owned by a Chinese company, tensions rose when Ramaswamy mentioned Haley’s daughter’s use of the app, prompting an angry response from Haley. She retorted, “You’re just scum.”
As the candidates explored their positions on TikTok, a Chinese company’s app, most expressed support for its ban due to national security concerns. This included Ramaswamy, who had defended its use as a means to connect with young Republican voters.
The debate opened with candidates explaining why they should be the party’s standard-bearer instead of Trump. DeSantis criticised Trump’s absence, linking it to the party’s poor performance in off-year elections and stating, “I’m sick of Republicans losing!”
Haley offered a more measured critique, acknowledging Trump’s past role but suggesting he is not the right president at present.
While Trump has remained focused on a potential rematch with President Joe Biden in 2024, candidates largely avoided direct attacks on him during the debate. Instead, they targeted Biden, particularly during discussions on foreign policy and the Israel-Hamas conflict, expressing unwavering support for Israel and criticising Biden’s handling of the crisis.
DeSantis and Haley clashed over their respective approaches to Chinese investment, reflecting recent polls that show them competing for second place in early voting states.
In addition, the candidates pledged to take a strong stance against Hamas sympathisers, with DeSantis even promising to deport students expressing support for the group.
As Republicans sought to formulate a winning message after Democratic victories in state elections, they addressed the contentious issue of abortion. Scott expressed support for a federal 15-week ban, while Haley acknowledged the slim chances of such legislation passing in the closely divided Senate. DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban into law, emphasised his commitment to a “culture of life.”
Economic concerns and criticisms of Biden’s focus on climate change also featured prominently in the debate, with candidates proposing various approaches to address these issues. Overall, the debate highlighted the challenges and dynamics within the Republican Party as it navigates the post-Trump era.