The war for second place got hot, but the third GOP debate didn’t dent Trump

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MIAMI — Former President Donald Trump‘s top two rivals for the Republican nomination criticized him gingerly at an NBC News debate here Wednesday night as they continued to separate themselves from the rest of the field.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley sparred with each other but tiptoed around Trump — leaving open the stubborn question of how either of them plans to threaten his wide lead in national and state polls.

“Both candidates looked prepared to govern the country in serious times,” Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett said. “We are now getting to a point where the GOP has to decide if they want to nominate a legitimate candidate for president or an inflammatory personality who may be a political opioid of the right-wing masses as they march toward yet another loss at the ballot box.”

So far, the answer has been Trump. For the third time in three debates, Trump skipped the stage. Instead, Trump, who regularly beats DeSantis by 35 percentage points or more and Haley by larger margins in national polls, held a raucous rally in nearby Hialeah on Wednesday night.

Yet DeSantis and Haley both offered contrasts with Trump that were tame — certainly less bombastic than the ways he attacks them.

“Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016. 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, DeSantis added, Trump promised Republicans would get tired of winning, but Tuesday’s off-year elections showed that’s not happening. “I’m sick of Republicans losing,” he said.

Haley was even less aggressive in her criticism.

“I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time. I don’t think he’s the right president now,” she said. “I think that he put us $8 trillion in debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for that. I think the fact that he used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues, now he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again.”

Two other candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — the competitors who are polling the worst — receded into the background at times. Vivek Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate, might have suffered the same fate had he not fired rhetorical rockets at DeSantis, Haley and Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who wasn’t onstage.

But Ramaswamy’s attacks on fellow candidates — and Haley’s daughter — didn’t go over well in the debate hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Haley called Ramaswamy “scum” for mentioning her daughter.

She and DeSantis tussled with each other twice, with DeSantis getting the better of Haley on China and Haley getting in a dig on energy policy.

“She welcomed them into South Carolina, gave them land near a military base,” DeSantis said of development incentives South Carolina gave a Chinese company when Haley was governor. He added that she “wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter saying what a great friend they were.”

Later, Haley pushed back when DeSantis proclaimed his favor for energy exploration, noting his effort to stop hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Everglades. She admonished him for trying to “act like you weren’t a liberal” on the issue.

“You always have been. Just own it if that’s the case, but don’t keep saying you’re something that you’re not,” she said.

But on most of the questions asked by moderators Lester Holt and Kristen Welker of NBC News and Hugh Hewitt of Salem Radio Network, there were few major substantive differences between Haley and DeSantis.

For example, they both expressed unflinching support for Israel in its war with Hamas, promised to fight drug cartels — including using military force — and suggested they prefer that abortion restrictions be dealt with at the state level.

Their allies even had the same reaction to the political meaning of the debate: each side proclaiming its own candidate as the clear second to Trump. The dynamic only reinforced Trump’s dominance over the field and the inability of DeSantis and Haley to shake each other.

Former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a onetime rival who has endorsed Haley, said shots at her from DeSantis and Ramaswamy affirm the surge she has seen in state polls, in which she is now tied with DeSantis for second in Iowa and alone in second in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“Well, the fact that everybody went and attacked Ambassador Haley tonight is a sign that they recognize that her rise is real, that this is really boiling down to a one-on-one with Donald Trump and Nikki Haley,” Hurd said.

Likewise, DeSantis allies were encouraged by his debate performance.

“DeSantis seemed above the fray,” DeSantis donor Dan Eberhart said. “He was calm, measured and presidential. He showed he’s the only alternative to Donald Trump.”

McDaniel, whom Ramaswamy called on to resign as head of the RNC from the debate stage, said she wasn’t bothered by the lack of discussion of Trump — who first installed her at the RNC.

“I’m fine with that. I would rather talk about Joe Biden. I want to talk about the policies that Americans care about,” McDaniel told NBC News. “Obviously, this was a change from where we were even a month ago with what happened in Israel. And when NBC and I discussed this, we really felt like this is a time for us to meet the moment and make this a more policy-driven debate, and I think they’ve delivered.”

Republican strategists who spoke to NBC News after the debate said DeSantis and Haley were in a class by themselves — but that it won’t matter, because Trump wasn’t there and he suffered no serious damage for his absence.

“Haley and DeSantis clearly stand out on that stage,” said a veteran GOP strategist who isn’t aligned with any campaign. “Nothing tonight matters by the time [of the] Panthers-Bears kickoff in a barnburner ‘Thursday Night Football’ game in 22 hours.”

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