Want to hear more analysis from me about last night’s Republican debate? Click here to listen to me on NPR’s “1A” this morning from 10-11 a.m. ET. You can also check your local listings to see when the show will be on the radio in your area.
If you watched the first and second Republican primary debates, there probably wasn’t much of a need for you to tune into the third primetime showdown last night.
NBC’s moderators did an able job keeping the debate on track, but ultimately, lobbed questions at the candidates about most of the same topics we’ve already heard them pontificate about.
As a result, we got a number of the same talking points as previous debates: Ron DeSantis gave his same speech about tapping oil from “Midland over Moscow.” Nikki Haley talked once again about the need for “consensus” on abortion. Chris Christie argued that defending Ukraine is a way to combat China. And so on. DeSantis even used similar opening and closing statements (“I will take the hits, I will take the arrows”) in the same debate, repeating himself at the beginning and end of the night.
In one of my college courses, that would be called “self-plagiarism,” grounds for failing a class. But it was par for the course in a primary fight that seems stuck on repeat, with the same cast of low-polling candidates duking it out for second place as the far-and-away frontrunner runs circles around them all.
Was there anything new last night? Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy still hate each other. Their feud grew even more personal, as Ramaswamy brought up that Haley’s daughter was on TikTok (something Haley criticized him for at the last debate). “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” she responded, one of several sharp barbs she offered throughout the need. “You’re just scum.”
The candidates also had their first opportunity to address the Israel-Hamas war on the debate stage. All five candidates agreed on the need to allow Israel to defend itself without constraint; all but Ramaswamy pledged to give U.S. aid towards those efforts. “I would tell him to smoke those terrorists on his southern border,” Ramaswamy said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “And I’ll tell him as president of the United States, I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border. That’s his responsibility. This is our responsibility.”
The NBC moderators pressed the contenders hard on whether they’d raise the retirement age for Social Security recipients; DeSantis and Tim Scott ruled it out, while Haley and Christie seemed open to raising the retirement age for workers now in their 20s and 30s. “Let me just say to my mama and every other mama or grandfather receiving Social Security: as president of the United States, I will protect your Social Security,” Scott said.
Going into the debate, aides to both DeSantis and Haley promised that their two candidates would be slugging each other — a prediction that mostly failed to come true, except for a quick skirmish over China.
The candidates also largely kept the gloves off when it came to their top rival. Unlike the previous two debates, when the GOP frontrunner was only mentioned late into the night, “Donald” and Trump” were the first two words out of Lester Holt’s mouth on Wednesday, as the moderator asked the candidates to explain why they would make a better nominee than the ex-president.
“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 we 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 were gonna get tired of winning — what we saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing.”
After their first responses, though, Trump largely became an afterthought — even though he is leading everyone on stage by more than 40 points. The candidates did return briefly to the topic that sparked many of this week’s GOP losses — abortion — with Scott the lone contender to call for a national abortion ban. The others said the issue should be left to the states: “As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” Haley said.
Meanwhile, Trump held forth at his own rally about 12 miles away, where he received his fifth endorsement from a Republican governor.
Trump announced that he would not participate in the next GOP primary debate, ensuring that it will be a similarly staid affair. “They’re not watchable,” Trump crowed to his supporters.
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The day ahead.
White House: President Biden will travel to Chicago, where he will meet with United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain and deliver remarks applauding the UAW’s new contract with the “Big Three” automakers.
VP Harris will travel to Boston, where she will deliver remarks at an event focused on apprenticeship programs.
Congress: The Senate will vote to confirm two district court judge nominees and one circuit court judge nominee. The House will vote on the Financial Services/General Government appropriations package.
Supreme Court: The justices will meet for their weekly conference.
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