Less than a day after voters in multiple states rebuked GOP leaders who would restrict abortion rights, five Republicans running for president ignored the issue for the first 99 minutes of their third primary debate.
Unlike their last gathering, a chaotic scramble of interruptions and cross talk, the debate Wednesday night in Miami did hammer away at points of substance. The rub? Almost all of it was focused on foreign policy.
And while those questions were surely worth debating – even if the candidates largely agreed on top lines like supporting Israel and opposing Hamas, Iran and China – the effect was ultimately disorienting: If the GOP is going to take back the White House, why ignore the political hurdles standing in its way?
Considering the candidates’ narrow interests, it made some sense. None of their views on abortion, which came out 20 minutes before closing time, are particularly popular at the moment. Taken together, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s plea for consensus on the issue and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s insistence on a 15-week federal ban echoed the logic set forth by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in the days and weeks before his state GOP colleagues came up short in a high-stakes legislative contest.
Abortion wasn’t the only divisive topic that got short shrift in Miami. Former President Donald Trump, too, was an afterthought for most of the night after receiving a few measured jabs, in absentia, early on and only at the prodding of the moderators. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis summed up the argument against Trump, saying he is a “different guy than he was in 2016” and, like Haley, suggesting Republicans not go chasing past glories.
The tensest moments on the stage stemmed from a puzzlingly protracted series of exchanges about TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media platform that the candidates are happy to spend time dissing.
Vivek Ramaswamy was the lone dissenter on that front, talking up his use of the app as a campaign tool while his rivals pledged to bury it, then effectively calling Haley a hypocrite because her daughter used it.
Understandably infuriated, Haley told Ramaswamy to “leave my daughter out of your voice,” before dismissing him as “scum.” (Ramaswamy appeared to do his best to avoid Haley after the debate when the candidates’ families joined them onstage).
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Trump’s harshest critic on cable news, hardly registered, putting another dent in his reputation as a shrewd (and occasionally crude) public speaker.