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Analysis: ‘Dick Cheney in heels’ and other takeaways from GOP presidential debate

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (center) speaks alongside former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy during the NBC News Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami, Florida. Five presidential hopefuls squared off in the third Republican primary debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined again to participate.   (Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By John T. Bennett CQ-Roll Call

Five Republican presidential candidates used two hours of network airtime Wednesday to spar with each other over entitlement programs and military aid to Ukraine, but the missing front-runner for the party’s nomination was not far from their minds.

“Everybody wants to talk about President Trump,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said, noting that the man who made her ambassador to the United Nations was the “right president at the right time.” Seven years later, however, she said he is not, and that he has gotten “weak in the knees” on crucial issues like supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called Donald Trump a “different guy” than he was in 2016, and slammed Trump’s electoral record as the head of the GOP, which has seen disappointment in successive elections, including on Tuesday in state races in Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia. “He said Republicans were going to get tired of winning,” DeSantis said. “Well, we saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing. “

The GOP candidates sparred in Miami during the party’s third primary season debate a night after Ohioans voted to establish a right to abortion, Virginians gave control of their legislature to Democrats, and Kentuckians handed Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a second term in the deep-red state.

DeSantis and Haley were joined by businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump, the clear GOP front-runner, skipped the debate — as he did the previous two — and instead headlined a political rally about a 25-minute drive away, at a small stadium in Hialeah, Fla.

While the candidates disagreed on a number of issues, they appeared unified when asked about campus antisemitism, saying they would slash federal funding for institutions of higher learning that promote so-called “woke” speech. Such legislation would struggle, however, in a Congress like the one in office today, and would not likely get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.

Trump surrogates spent Wednesday arguing on social media and cable television appearances that the debate was not the night’s main event and that the former president’s rally was far more important. Trump’s camp may have had a point — after all, he led DeSantis by 42.6 percentage points in an average Wednesday of multiple polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

Here are four takeaways from the GOP programming.

Israel’s war

After seven years of mostly adhering to Trump’s “America first” doctrine, the candidates were hawkish on Israel’s war with Hamas.

“Finish the job once and for all with these butchers, Hamas,” DeSantis said when the candidates were asked what they would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He cannot live with that threat right by his country.”

Haley echoed him, saying of Hamas: “Finish them. Finish them.”

Haley warned of an “unholy alliance” among Iran, Russia and China, saying Iran is responsible, in part, for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians. Tehran long has been the Palestinian group’s chief sponsor.

Ramaswamy was, for once, equally hawkish in what he would tell Netanyahu. He said he would tell the prime minister to “smoke ’em out at your southern border.” But Israeli officials have told Palestinian civilians to move to the south of Gaza as it focuses its military response on the strip’s north. The overwhelming majority of Israel’s two southern borders are with Egypt (southeast) and Jordan (southwest).

No one was more hawkish than Scott, who advocated for striking targets inside Iran. Though that would be an act of war, Scott argued that hitting Iranian proxy groups — including what he called warehouses in Syria — would not truly defeat Hamas.

Ukraine aid

Ramaswamy called his fellow Republicans on the stage “Ukraine hawks” and said they were trying to “walk back” their previous calls for Washington to stick by Kyiv.

Haley, who has clashed with Ramaswamy at previous debates, said American foes like Russian President Vladimir Putin would love for “someone like him to become president.”

DeSantis criticized President Joe Biden’s request for $106 billion for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, saying the things it proposes paying for would be foolish. He also called on European countries to do more to help Ukraine. “We are not going to send your sons and daughters” to fight inside Ukraine, he said of U.S. military troops.

But it was Ramaswamy who delivered one of the night’s memorable lines, calling Haley “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” He was referring to George W. Bush’s vice president, the post-9/11 hawk who helped push the U.S. into Iraq in 2003. Haley countered that her shoes had “five-inch heels” and were there as “ammunition.”

The split on additional Ukraine funding comes as lawmakers are struggling to decide whether Washington will send more aid — and how much, if so.

The debate participants were in agreement that the U.S. should spend more on its own defense budget, which has increased each year under Biden.

Entitlement reform

Each candidate said Washington should enact an overhaul of the federal benefits systems widely called “entitlement programs.” But they sparred over how to do so.

Haley endorsed making changes that would largely affect Social Security retirement benefits for people now in their 20s, while also proposing to “limit the benefits [to] the wealthy.” Scott spoke directly to his “momma,” saying he would protect Social Security. Unlike Haley, he expressed opposition to raising the eligibility age.

DeSantis said he had a message for seniors: “You need that Social Security check. We’ll make sure to get that done.” He also suggested he would propose to link any overhaul to inflation, saying recipients are spending more due to higher prices but not getting more federal benefits. DeSantis also opposed raising the eligibility age.

Trump’s rant

The former president called on his party to “stop wasting time” with debates among other candidates during a rally in which he mostly played the hits — including ranting against the criminal and civil charges against him.

“Every time I’m indicted, I consider it a great badge of honor, because I’m being indicted for you,” he said.

He also addressed federal spending, claiming in a second term he would not “give one penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate or a mask mandate.” It was his administration that led the development of COVID-19 vaccines, something he sometimes brags about.

Even though he skipped the debate, Trump’s campaign claimed victory in a statement sent out before the event on NBC was over.

“President Trump wins…again!” the subject line declared. “Unless you’re a fan of cheap knockoffs or out-of-tune tribute bands, tonight’s GOP debate was a complete waste of time and money. President Donald J. Trump leads the Republican primary by 50 points. He is crushing Crooked Joe Biden in national polling as well as five of the six biggest swing states. Voters want a return to the Country we had just three short years ago, before Biden and the radical left began to destroy it, and voters believe President Trump is the only one who can make this a reality.”

Despite Trump’s use of the “Crooked” moniker, no Republican-controlled congressional committee has proven wrongdoing by Biden. And no prosecutor has said, if he was not the sitting president, they would charge him.

But the legal troubles of the GOP front-runner, who faces criminal indictments in several cities and was testifying at a civil trial recently over charges his business falsified the value of properties, got scant attention during the debate. Christie was the only one to bring them up during the debate’s opening question, which challenged the candidates to explain to Trump supporters why they and not he should be the nominee.

“I’ll say this about Donald Trump,” Christie said. “Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.”