Five Republican candidates faced off on a debate stage in Miami on Wednesday night. But unless the GOP presidential contest shifts dramatically, the nomination could belong to former President Trump by the time Floridians vote on March 19.
The quintet — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — may be better off spending their time in Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the nominating contest in January.
If they can’t stop Trump from strong showings there and in the other early states of South Carolina and Nevada, he will roll into Super Tuesday — March 5 — with the ability to sew up nearly all of the delegates required to clinch the party’s nomination. More than a third of Republican delegates will be awarded that day, when California and more than a dozen other states vote.
Trump has overwhelming leads in public polls of Republican voters in all four of the early states, running more than 30 points ahead of the rest of the field.
Here’s what else you need to know about last night’s debate:
Trump wasn’t there, but he was nearby, mocking his rivals.
Trump once again didn’t appear on the GOP debate stage, instead rallying supporters 10 miles away in Hialeah on Wednesday.
The absent front-runner in polls attracted criticism from several of the candidates hoping to topple him.
DeSantis argued that Trump has harmed the nation and the GOP.
“He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance,” DeSantis said. “He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp. And he said Republicans are gonna get tired of winning.”
“We all saw last night,” DeSantis added, referring to Republican defeats in elections in Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia on Tuesday. “I’m sick of Republicans losing.”
Christie, long a Trump critic, argued that the former president’s legal troubles make him a bad candidate.
“Anybody who is going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focused on keeping themselves out of jail in courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country,” he said.
For DeSantis, the setting was particularly personal. He and Trump both call the Sunshine State home, but a poll released Tuesday shows Trump with a 39-point edge there.
Trump, speaking to thousands at a stadium, mocked his rivals.
“I think they’re in a debate tonight; nobody’s talking about it,” Trump said, bragging about his double-digit lead in the polls over “Ron DeSanctimonious” and Haley, whom he labeled “Bird Brain.”
Responding to attacks that his refusal to face his rivals showed cowardice, Trump argued that giving a speech to thousands of people was harder than debating on television, and falsely claimed that previous debates had low ratings.
The first GOP debate, in August, garnered 12.8 million viewers, the largest cable TV audience for a nonsports program by that point in the year.
“Do you think we did the right thing by not participating?” Trump asked the sea of red MAGA hats gathered in a football stadium.
His fans responded with a raucous, “Yes!”
The Israel-Hamas war was a main topic — and a potential U.S. strike on Iran was discussed.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas took center stage, and the candidates mostly called for unwavering American support for Israel.
Ramaswamy was the only candidate who argued against sending more aid to Israel, suggesting that the country could defend itself and that the U.S. should refrain from getting involved. He likened Haley and DeSantis to former Vice President Dick Cheney, a hawk who pushed for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“That’s the choice we face. Do you want a leader from a different generation who is going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels?” Ramaswamy asked.
“We’ve got two of them on stage tonight,” he added, referring to Haley and DeSantis, who has denied wearing height-boosting boots.
Haley later responded that her shoes had 5-inch heels. “And I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” she added. “I wear heels not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.”
Matthew Brooks, chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which co-hosted the debate, asked the candidates whether they would “support the use of military force by the United States against Iran.”
Haley and DeSantis endorsed military action.
“We need to go and take out their infrastructure that they are using to make those strikes so they can never do it again,” Haley said. “You punch them hard, and they will back off.”
These two candidates are in a fight for second place — and it shows.
DeSantis and Haley, battling for second place in the primaries, began the debate weathering attacks directed at them, including the “3-inch heels” line, from Ramaswamy.
But by the halfway point, the two Republicans were sparring with each other.
Haley said DeSantis’ environmental policy “cracks [her] up,” accusing him of being a “liberal when it comes to the environment.”
DeSantis countered that he supports energy exploitation of shale, and that the only way to access it is through fracking.
“We’re absolutely going to frack, but I disagree with Nikki Haley,” he added. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to drill in the Florida Everglades. And I know most
Both are at critical junctures in their candidacies.
Middling debate performances and an inability to break out in the field has caused the Florida governor’s luster to dull.
Meanwhile, Haley’s poll numbers have risen in early state polls after strong debate performances. Hours before Wednesday’s debate, her campaign pointed to polls that indicate she has a better chance than either Trump or DeSantis of beating President Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, in battleground states and nationwide.
Haley’s greatest ire was reserved for Ramaswamy. After the entrepreneur mentioned that her daughter used TikTok, a social media platform that is controversial due to its ties to China, Haley responded: “Leave my daughter out of your voice. You are just scum.”
This could be the last we see of one or more candidates.
Will this be the last time we see one or more of these candidates on a stage? Ask former Vice President Mike Pence, who dropped out of the race late last month.
Scott, who barely qualified for the Miami stage, remains an afterthought in most polls.
Christie is in a similar boat, though he seems to be in the race largely to call out Trump, his former ally, and may try to cling on solely for that purpose.
Both Scott and Christie appeared confident as the night ended. But the end to a presidential campaign can come quickly.
The next debate is scheduled for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. To qualify, candidates have to meet new, more demanding polling and fundraising requirements.
By that point, the Iowa caucuses will be less than six weeks away.
Mehta reported from Miami and Bierman from Washington. Times staff writer Faith E. Pinho in Hialeah contributed to this report.