CNN Opinion asked political contributors to weigh in on the third Republican presidential debate of the 2024 race. The views expressed in these commentaries are their own.
Roxanne Jones: DeSantis finds his mojo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was out to prove at the Republican debate in Miami on Wednesday night that Florida belongs to him, which was no easy task with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump just down the road in Hialeah, Florida, hosting his own rowdy rally telling the world that Florida is Trump territory.
But for once, DeSantis did not seem shaken. For much of the night, he commanded the stage convincingly.
This was DeSantis’ strongest debate yet, easily eclipsing the stilted delivery and non-answers we saw from him in debates past. The governor was more personable and direct, and he was able to deliver seemingly heartfelt answers, especially when speaking about his support for Israel and signing an executive order after the Hamas terrorist attack that allowed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to pay for 700 Americans in Israel to fly back to the US. The governor, in a strong appeal to Jewish voters, made it clear that he unconditionally supports Israel in its war against Hamas and reminded voters that as a veteran who had served in Iraq, he understood well the horrors of war.
Those who were waiting to see if the man who dared to challenge the party favorite was himself up to the challenge likely felt a little better about their chances after Wednesday night.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ana Marie Cox: Haley carries off high heels and ghoulish saber-rattling with aplomb
If I were there when former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley walked into some corporate bathroom with the expression on her face that she had during most of Wednesday night’s debate, I would be the first to rush to her side with a handful of paper towels to see if she needed to splash water on her face and to ask whose car I should key. Other women know the look I’m talking about. “The mansplaining,” I’d say. “It was bad, wasn’t it?”
I don’t agree with much she has to say, but I bristled in solidarity when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissed the female politician’s cordial correspondence with a Chinese official as a “love letter” and when Vivek Ramaswamy employed gendered insults by referring to her (and, I think, DeSantis) as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” Haley later noted that her shoes are five inches and qualify as ammunition, which is certainly one way to make them more acceptable attire for men.
At one point, Haley flushed dark purple when Ramaswamy branded her a hypocrite for wanting to crack down on TikTok even though her own daughter has an account. “You’re just scum,” she breathed with the quiet rage usually reserved for horror movie final girls. I have never come closer to cheering anyone for anything at a Republican debate.
I did not cheer, because I think Haley’s policies are terrible. She poses as a reasonable, rational conservative and gets away with it because her fellow contenders are, for the most part, shameless reactionaries slurping after Donald Trump’s leftovers. She carries off both the high heels and ghoulish saber-rattling with more aplomb than DeSantis; she’s perfected the emptiest form of empathy for talking about abortion.
“I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” she said at the debate, as if the problem were people being able to express their opinions and not people being able to access basic health care. “We don’t need to divide America over this issue [abortion] anymore,” is a convenient thing to say when you want voters to stop punishing your party for its position on the issue. Pleading for comity is not, however, a policy position, and on the policy, Haley is clear: She signed a 19-week abortion ban as governor of South Carolina.
Watching Haley on stage, eking out some grace while the buffoons next to her frolicked, I was tempted to elaborate on my powder-room fantasy: Maybe she’s not a bad person. Maybe we’d bond over being the smart girls in the room and what’s the best way to deliver a cutting remark. But Haley isn’t trapped in a workplace with no recourse but to make the best of things; she’s propping up a party that’s making things worse.
Ana Marie Cox is a political journalist and writer in Austin.
Patrick T. Brown: Republican candidates are shifting their approach on abortion
On Tuesday, the issue of abortion seemed to cost Republicans some off-year election pickups, and Ohio voters approved an amendment enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution. Just one day later, the leading Republican primary candidates showed signs the party might be learning some lessons about how to talk about the issue.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley continued her realist approach to the issue, again pointing out that a federal 15-week abortion ban – the goal of many pro-life advocacy groups – would stand almost no chance of passing without a dramatic change in the composition of the US Senate.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who thrilled social conservatives by signing a six-week abortion ban in the Sunshine State earlier this year, also paid tribute to the idea that states should be allowed to take different approaches, as did former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Only South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott made the case for a federal 15-week ban. He gave voice to conservative concerns by calling out permissive abortion laws in states like California and New York for being too extreme. But Scott, like former Vice President Mike Pence before him, couldn’t explain how he’d overcome the near-certainty of a legislative filibuster, or how his strategy would help the pro-life movement, which has lost every voter initiative since the Dobbs decision, stem the bleeding at the ballot box.
Haley and Christie’s eagerness to signal to suburban voters that they were not ideologues on the issue might strike some conservatives as off-putting. And in a perfect world, candidates would have offered more specifics about what, precisely, being “pro-life after the baby is born” — as Scott put it — would look like.
But, like former President Donald Trump, who has refused to endorse a federal abortion ban, the leading Republican candidates showed they are increasingly ready to move on from abortion as a federal issue — though unlike the former president, the candidates Wednesday night were largely rhetorically committed to strong pro-life legislation at the state level.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.
David Mark: The pugilistic populist version of Vivek Ramaswamy returns
That was fast.
Gone from the Republican presidential debate stage in Miami Wednesday night was the humble and contrite Vivek Ramaswamy of the second debate. The wealthy biotech entrepreneur was back to playing the pugilistic populist — a Donald Trump-like character of sorts, a position repeatedly left open since the former president and 2024 GOP frontrunner has skipped all three debates.
Ramaswamy threw verbal jabs in all directions, including at Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, for broad Republican losses during her tenure in that job starting in early 2017. And that came with Tuesday’s largely desultory off-year election results for Republicans, fresh in mind.
Ramaswamy accused NBC’s “Meet The Press” moderator Kristen Welker of pushing false news about alleged 2016 campaign collusion between the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian agents.
Ramaswamy reserved his most intense invective for former South Carolina Gov. and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
“Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” Ramaswamy said dismissively of Haley, over her calls for robust support for both Israel in its defensive war against Hamas terrorists, and Ukraine as it tries to stave off advances by Russia after nearly two years of fighting.
Haley made her disgust with Ramaswamy clear. “You’re just scum,” she said after he made a comment about her daughter using TikTok.
It’s unclear why Ramaswamy made his latest debate-stage turnabout. Perhaps he’s auditioning to be Trump’s running mate if, as expected, the former president wins the 2024 GOP nomination. Or perhaps he is eyeing a position as a political talk show commentator.
Whatever the reason, Ramaswamy, with polls still in the single digits after months of campaigning, is likely in the last stages of his presidential bid. Many fellow Republicans won’t be sad to see him go.
David Mark is a political journalist, author and public speaker.
W. James Antle III: Haley takes a risk by evoking George W. Bush
In the third Republican presidential debate, you could begin to hear the tone shift away from the less-interventionist “America First” foreign policy of former President Donald Trump back toward something more closely resembling the George W. Bush years.
Another component is the news cycle moving from Ukraine, where many Republicans are skeptical of a large US role, to Israel, where the party is more united around supporting the Jewish state.
Vivek Ramaswamy was the chief spokesman for the war-weary on stage. But while he is an eloquent counter-puncher, he is also an acquired taste.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis split the difference as the party tries to grapple with an exploding world. While he only seems to want boots on the ground near the US southern border, he channeled President Ronald Reagan versus the Soviet Union in his own approach to China.
Despite acquiring much of her foreign policy cred from serving as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley is the top-polling candidate who wants to make a break from the more isolationist Trump on these issues and she has the most momentum from past debates.
Haley’s stance is a big risk. It’s not 2003 anymore, though she doesn’t clutter her hawkish message with illusions about spreading democracy. But at some point, a risk is exactly what someone who wants to beat Trump will have to take.
W. James Antle III is the politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of “Devouring Freedom: Can Government Ever Be Stopped?”
Sophia Nelson: What Tuesday’s elections results taught those on the debate stage: Nothing
The third Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday was a continuation of Tuesday’s Election Day debacle for Republicans, as the specter of former President Donald Trump and MAGA politics continues to be an albatross around the necks of the party’s candidates.
In Virginia where I live, the 2023 off-year cycle turned out to be devastatingly bad news for rising GOP star Gov. Glenn Youngkin, as he failed to deliver the state legislature for Republicans. Youngkin put himself front-and-center on the campaign trail and staked his political future on successfully campaigning for a 15-week abortion ban. He lost resoundingly.
In a press conference Wednesday morning, Youngkin said sheepishly, “I think the No. 1 lesson is that Virginia is really purple.” No. That is not the lesson. Republicans also lost in red Ohio and ruby-red Kentucky. The lesson is that Republicans are out of step with the nation. They are fighting culture wars that are better suited to the 1980s than the 2020s.
Yet the five people seeking to win the GOP nomination are still afraid to go after the GOP frontrunner. Trump barely garnered a mention. With Democrats overperforming in both the 2022 midterms and 2023 off-year cycles, again, the Republicans on the stage Wednesday night made clear they are still not willing to do all they can to take on Trump.
Sophia A. Nelson, a former investigative counsel in the US Congress, is the author of the book “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.”
Max Burns: DeSantis showed more energy, but not more strategy
Someone clearly told Ron DeSantis to step on the gas. After two debates in which the Florida governor often faded into the background, Republican voters saw a more energetic and combative DeSantis than ever before.
It’s just not clear all that energy achieved much.
DeSantis found his foil for the evening in former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, denouncing her as a pretender on China issues by citing her attempts as governor of South Carolina to woo Chinese foreign investment. But Haley clapped back by accusing DeSantis of cutting similar deals in Florida.
The entire exchange came off as another impulsive move by a DeSantis campaign that has often struggled to pin down its strategy. Polling consistently shows DeSantis ahead of Haley. They’ve built sharply different Republican constituencies, with Haley appealing to the establishment and center-right, so weakening Haley doesn’t necessarily drive votes to DeSantis.
With the road to the Republican nomination running directly through Trump, confronting him isn’t optional. But until DeSantis can bring himself to go beyond mild swipes at Trump instead of aiming fire at other GOP presidential runners-up, he’ll be stuck competing for a distant second place.
Max Burns is a Democratic strategist, columnist and founder of Third Degree Strategies.
Raul A. Reyes: Candidates modeled Trump, pushing misleading claims on immigration
Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate featured four adults and Vivek Ramaswamy. We saw a more sober discussion among the remaining GOP candidates on issues ranging from Israel to Venezuela that provided a clearer exposition of their respective policies.
However, one troubling throughline began with the very first question. Asked why she would be a more viable candidate than the current frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley felt compelled to mention what she called “the open (southern) border where terrorists can come through,” adding that the border needed to be secure “so our families are safe.”
In a segment about aid to Ukraine, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to send troops to the southern border, citing the threat of “terrorists.” And Ramaswamy pledged that as president, he would be “smoking the terrorists on our southern border.”
But there is not yet substantial evidence to support this alleged link between illegal immigration and terrorism. While there has been an increase in the apprehension of individuals on the terrorism watchlist in the last two years, they represent a tiny fraction of people processed along the border. Nor are all people on this list terrorists.
It seemed the candidates were merely parroting Trump’s brand of immigration rhetoric, which is not going to win over any of the former president’s supporters. And it was jarring how easily DeSantis went from saying he stood for “a culture of life” to vowing to shoot drug smugglers “stone cold dead” at the border. Likewise, Haley swiftly pivoted from expressing empathy for Venezuelans fleeing socialism under President Nicolás Maduro to complaining that Biden was allowing some Venezuelans to temporarily stay here.
Moderator Hugh Hewitt actually played into another immigration myth by asking the candidates what they would do to stop the flow of fentanyl across the border. He did not mention that fentanyl is overwhelmingly smuggled into this country by US citizens and that in 2021, 86% of fentanyl trafficking convictions were of US citizens, according to the US Sentencing Commission.
None of the candidates, in their answers, pointed out that fact. Instead, they spoke about sending special forces to Mexico and building the wall. This was a missed opportunity to speak about immigration based on facts. So for all their talk about being an alternative to Trump, the candidates were as misleading as they were unoriginal in discussing immigration and the border.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors.
Frida Ghitis: The candidates should have saved their petty sniping and attacked Trump and Biden
The debate was unusual in many ways. Notable among them is how infrequently the aspiring Republican nominees remembered to criticize the Democratic incumbent, President Joe Biden. As for their most immediate rival, former President Donald Trump, they barely mentioned him.
Instead, they stuck to safe territory. The five GOP candidates seemed to argue with each other over which one of them would be a stronger supporter of Israel and a more determined foe against Iran and China. That was uncontroversial and largely risk free, putting them squarely where Republican voters are.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley rejected the notion of curbing Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza. “The last thing we need to do is tell Israel what to do,” she said, adding, “The only thing we should be doing is supporting them in eliminating Hamas.” Sen. Tim Scott said there should be “no daylight” between the US and Israel.
That seemed to be the consensus in what looked like a lovefest for Israel, reflecting the strong support for Israel among Republican voters. But strategically, their problem is that Biden has offered unwavering backing to Israel from the day it was attacked by Hamas. Still, they tried to draw a distinction by rejecting the Biden administration’s calls for a humanitarian pause to ease the plight of civilians in Gaza.
Vivek Ramaswamy tried to spin the question of what he would tell Israel’s prime minister by turning the focus back on the US. “I would tell him to smoke those terrorists on his southern border and then I’ll tell him as president of the United States, I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border.”
As ever, Ramaswamy echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin and blasted Ukraine’s leadership before Haley rebuked him — their mutual dislike visible in their faces — saying Putin and [Chinese leader] Xi, “are salivating,” at the idea that he could become president.
When talk of containing China turned to banning TikTok, Ramaswamy mentioned that Haley’s daughter is a user of the social platform. She told him to leave her daughter out of it, and muttered, “You’re just scum.” At another point, Ramaswamy struck up a little side chat, rudely giggling along with Scott while Haley was speaking.
If they’d used some of their sharpest salvos against Trump or Biden, it might have actually made a difference in the race.
Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist.
Jeff Yang: Five candidates who likely won’t ever be president
Let’s be frank, it’s highly unlikely that any of the five Republican candidates who were on stage Wednesday night will be president in 2025, and maybe ever.
But each of them was still doing their best to manifest that dream in their own lane: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis boasted of his Rocky-esque ability to take punches to the face, as rationale for his fall from grace as top challenger into the scrum of those trying to remain relevant. Former governor and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and South Carolina US Sen. Tim Scott wrestled for the title of reasonable alternative, even as each appealed for the base with wild and probably illegal proposals (Haley vowing to “send special operations in to take out the cartels” in Mexico and Scott saying he’d “deport all college students on visas who are encouraging Jewish genocide.”)
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized Donald Trump as much as any Republican can (which is to say, mildly, and apologetically). And Vivek Ramaswamy kept up his bizarre political performance art long after it stopped being amusing. (Vote for Vivek, the candidate promising to encapsulate the US in a hermetically sealed bubble!)
Still, it’s Impossible not to acknowledge that the most shocking thing about this otherwise meh debate is that a majority of the candidates represented were people of color, and two of them — the two slap fighting throughout the night — were Asian American, and both of Indian descent. That might not exactly be progress, but it’s at least a sign of evolution, in a party that sometimes refuses to believe in it.
Alice Stewart: The candidates made it clear the GOP stands with Israel
As the war wages on in Israel, the heated GOP debate in Miami highlighted unity in standing with our ally. All Republican candidates expressed unequivocal support for Israel, as well as zero tolerance for antisemitism here at home.
When asked what message they would give to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, each candidate said Israel has every right to defend itself and encouraged the leader to eliminate the Hamas terrorists.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said it’s time to “finish the job.” Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley urged Netanyahu to “Finish them. Finish them.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy pushed the Israeli leader to “smoke the terrorists.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the Prime Minister “must go in and make sure Hamas can never do this again.” And South Carolina US Sen. Tim Scott attacked President Joe Biden for a weak strategy of diplomacy, adding that “appeasement l