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Republican debate highlights: 5 key moments from the third GOP debate in Miami

Candidates clash at third Republican debate
Candidates clash at third Republican debate in Miami 12:42

Five Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Miami on Wednesday for the third debate of the primary cycle, where they focused their attacks on each other while mostly avoiding former President Donald Trump, the clear front-runner.

Though the stage was less crowded than it was for the first two debates, the dynamic among the candidates was the same. On question after question, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy trained their fire on each other, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott struggled for air time. 

Trump, meanwhile, was holding a rally in nearby Hialeah, having again chosen to avoid the debate stage. He has not participated in any of the three debates so far, and his lead in the polls gives him little incentive to change course.

Aside from a handful of comments about his absence, the five candidates that were on stage focused their criticism on one another, tackling issues ranging from Israel and Ukraine to TikTok and abortion.

Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis,  Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott stand on stage at the Republican debate on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami.
Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis,  Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott stand on stage at the Republican debate on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami. Rebecca Blackwell / AP

DeSantis emphasized his experience as governor and pointed to specific actions he's taken in Florida. Haley stressed her experience in foreign affairs and reiterated the case for U.S. support of Ukraine and Israel, while criticizing DeSantis for his record on energy. Ramaswamy attacked them both, at one point even invoking Haley's daughter. That comment prompted her to call him "scum," in what was the tensest exchange of the night.

The first two debates did little to change the dynamics of the race among Republican primary voters, and the third seemed unlikely to be much different. The latest CBS News poll showed Trump winning 61% of likely GOP primary voters nationwide, more than all the other candidates combined. DeSantis polled at 18%, Haley at 9%, Ramaswamy at 5%, Scott at 4% and Christie at 2%. 

Here are five key moments from Wednesday night's Republican debate in Miami:

Candidates react to Tuesday's GOP election losses: "Party of losers" 

Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a debate hosted by NBC News on Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami.
Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a debate hosted by NBC News on Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami. Rebecca Blackwell / AP

The candidates, one by one, were asked a variation of the same question: Why should voters support them, and not Trump? Several pointed to the Republicans' lackluster performance in elections in Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky on Tuesday.

DeSantis, given a chance to differentiate himself from Trump, said Donald Trump is a "lot different guy than he was in 2016."

The Florida governor said Trump needs to explain why he racked up the national debt, failed to drain the D.C. swamp and didn't make Mexico pay for a border wall. And DeSantis pointed to Tuesday night's disappointing election results for Republicans. 

"[Trump] said Republicans were going to get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night, I'm sick of Republicans losing," DeSantis said. 

Ramaswamy, without attacking Trump, said there's something "deeper going on in the Republican Party here." He took aim at Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the RNC, and the Republican establishment.

"I am upset about what happened last night. We've become a party of losers, at the end of the day," Ramaswamy said. "We got trounced last night in 2023 and I think we have to have accountability in our party."

Ramaswamy goes after Haley on Israel support: "Do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels?" 

Ramaswamy, who is in favor of limited U.S. support for Israel, took a shot at his rivals, specifically targeting Haley, over U.S. intervention in conflicts abroad. 

"Do you want a leader from a different generation who is going to put this country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?" Ramaswamy said while answering a question about how he would advise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his nation's war against Hamas. (He added, "In which case, we've got two of them on stage tonight," an apparent dig at DeSantis, whose footwear has been the subject of recent speculation.)

Ramaswamy said that it's Israel's responsibility to defend itself, while other candidates said they would offer Israel support. Haley said she would tell Netanyahu to "finish them," referring to Hamas, and that the U.S. "needs Israel." 

"Israel has the right and the responsibility to defend itself. 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," Ramaswamy said. 

Haley later responded to the shoe remark, saying, "They are five-inch heels, and I don't wear them unless you can run in them."

Candidates discuss beefing up U.S. Navy to deter China 

Only a few of the candidates had a specific answer when moderator Hugh Hewitt asked whether the U.S. Navy is big enough to deter China from attacking Taiwan, or to defeat China in the event of a conflict. 

DeSantis vowed to deter China from invading Taiwan by building up the U.S. Navy to 355 ships by the end of his first term and 385 ships at the end of his second term, with a goal of 600 ships in the next two decades.

Haley said the military needs to be modernized, but gave few specifics. 

Ramaswamy said he would "increase our naval capacity by at least 20% over the course of several years." 

"My first observation is that nobody answers your question," Christie told Hewitt, before saying that nuclear submarines are "the greatest deterrent to Chinese aggression" and that it would be his first priority to increase the program. "That is the first place I would go to increase American naval power. Our nuclear submarines are able to move stealthily, quietly and effectively." 

Haley calls Ramaswamy "scum" after attack over her daughter

The simmering Haley-Ramaswamy feud finally boiled over when Ramaswamy went after Haley over her daughter's past use of TikTok. The U.S. government has grave security concerns over the app because of its parent company's ties to China, and Haley has said she would ban it.

"Well, I want to laugh at why Nikki Haley didn't answer your question, which is about looking at families in the eye," Ramaswamy said. "In the last debate, she made fun of me for actually joining TikTok. Well, her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time, so you might want to take care of your family first."

"Leave my daughter out of your voice," a visibly angry Haley retorted. 

"The next generation of Americans are using it, and that's actually the point," Ramaswamy said. 

"You're just scum," Haley said of Ramaswamy. 

Haley says the country needs to "stop the judgment" over disagreements on abortion 

The moderators pushed the candidates for their reaction to the election results in Ohio, where voters decided to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state's constitution. The candidates were also asked to detail what federal restrictions on the procedure they would support as president. 

Their responses reflected the ongoing debate in the Republican Party about the path forward on abortion following last year's Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue to the states. Voters across the country have rejected GOP-backed efforts to restrict abortion access since then, most recently in Ohio.

Haley, who has expressed a more nuanced view on abortion than many of her Republican colleagues, said this is a "personal issue for every woman and every man."

Haley said she personally opposes abortion because her husband was adopted and she struggled to have her two children.

"As much as I'm pro-life, I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice," she said. 

Some states are implementing policies that support abortion, but at least the people decided, she said. Then, she tried to level with the American people, insisting a federal ban or restrictions on abortion will be nearly impossible as a political matter.

"It's going to take 60 Senate votes, a majority of the House and a president to sign it," Haley said. "No Republican president can ban abortions anymore than a Democratic president can ban these state laws."

Instead, Haley said Republicans should work to ban late-term abortions, provide access to contraception and support mothers. 

"Stop the judgment," she said. "We don't need to divide America over this issue anymore." 

Scott said the U.S. needs a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks. Haley pointed out that he was previously slow to embrace that position.

DeSantis shied away from discussing an explicit federal ban at a specific number of weeks, saying Democrats "will not identify" the week of fetal development when abortions should be disallowed.

Christie expressed his support for states making their own decisions on abortion. 

"This is an issue that should be decided in each state. And I trust the people of this country, state by state, to make the call for themselves," Christie said. 

Christie also said the bigger issue is Republicans are "not pro-life for the whole life," saying drug-addicted teens and older people matter, too. 

Ramaswamy said men need to have more "sexual responsibility" when it comes to the abortion debate. 

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