MIAMI (AP) — Foreign policy and the Israel-Hamas war are expected to be prominent in Wednesday's third Republican primary debate, as a narrowing field of candidates seeks to cut into Donald Trump's lead without being able to challenge the former president in person.
Trump will again skip the debate in Miami, instead holding a rally in a nearby suburb. He says he won't participate due to his large lead in national and early state polls.
With voting set to start in leadoff Iowa in January, no one has thus far been able to shake Trump’s dominance of the Republican primary. Many of the candidates have gone after each other hoping to break out as a viable alternative to the former president, emphasizing their differences on foreign policy but also ripping Trump for his criticisms of the Israeli prime minister and claims that a group attacking Israel was “very smart.”
Republican strategist David Kochel, who has advised several past presidential campaigns, said despite Trump’s absence from the stage, the debate offers a chance for someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley to try to emerge.
“Even if he’s not on the stage and basically all these candidates are all kind of fighting for second, I think it’s worth it,” Kochel said. “Because if this race does get much more quickly down to a two-person race, who knows what the dynamic will be?”
Kochel said though Trump has a lot of strength, “You still have a lot of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire open to somebody else.”
So far, however, Trump has retained huge leads despite facing four criminal indictments and a civil fraud case against his businesses for which he testified in New York this week.
His campaign has worked to overpower DeSantis in their shared home state and publicly said it wants to score blowout wins in early primary states to seal the nomination.
The rivalry between DeSantis and Haley has ramped up in recent weeks, with Haley rising in a prominent Iowa poll and gaining new interest from donors and voters. Both campaigns and allied super PACs have hit each other over the war in Israel and the U.S. relationship with China as Republicans take an increasingly antagonistic view of Beijing.
Both candidates have also diverged on abortion rights, a political challenge for Republicans since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Supporters of abortion rights claimed new momentum Tuesday after votes in Ohio and Kentucky went in their favor.
In a memo the DeSantis campaign distributed this week to donors, the Florida governor's top advisers argued that their candidate is best situated to deny Trump a runaway win in leadoff Iowa and that the other Republican rivals, including Haley, are at best, spoilers in that effort who could hand Trump the nomination.
Haley's campaign, however, contended in a memo that DeSantis and Haley are in “a dead heat” in Iowa, without acknowledging Trump's lead.
In addition to DeSantis and Haley, also appearing on stage Wednesday will be South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
The Republican candidates have been staunchly supportive of Israel in its offensive after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack killing more than 1,400 people.
DeSantis has used his official role as governor to show support for Israel, winning praise from some of the state's Democrats. He authorized the state to fly hundreds of Americans evacuated from Israel to the U.S., ordered state universities to disband chapters of a pro-Palestinian group, and arranged to help send weapons, ammunition and other supplies to Israel.
Haley, also the former governor of South Carolina, has leaned into her experience as Trump's U.N. ambassador arguing in support of the Israeli government. She has forcefully scolded Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate who has challenged some traditional GOP foreign policy positions, as lacking experience and expertise.
Haley and DeSantis have also become more frequent and vocal critics of Trump in recent weeks.
Haley, in a speech last month to the Republican Jewish Coalition, slammed Trump’s compliments of foreign strongmen and described his style of “chaos, vendettas and drama” as dangerous.
DeSantis, who has more directly embraced many of Trump’s policies and sought to win over some of his key supporters, has in recent days been questioning if Trump “can summon the balls to show up to the debate.” His campaign quickly starting selling sets of two golf balls for $18 in a box that declares, “Ron DeSantis has a pair” and “He shows up.”
The three remaining candidates — Christie, Scott, and Ramaswamy — are all taking different paths.
Ramaswamy has run as a potential inheritor to Trump's “America First” mantle. He said he wants the U.S. to avoid so-called “forever wars” and focus on China, while also telling the Republican Jewish Coalition that he would “love nothing more” than for Israel “to put the heads of the top 100 Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border.”
Christie, the former New Jersey governor, has focused almost exclusively on New Hampshire’s primary and become the race’s most vocal critic of Trump.
And Scott is hoping for a strong finish in Iowa, where he's courting the state's white evangelical voters and spending millions on ads leading up to the Jan. 15 caucuses.
The two-hour debate will be moderated by NBC News anchors Lester Holt and Kristen Welker and conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, who hosts a morning talk show for the Salem Radio Network.
The race's overwhelming front-runner, meanwhile, will be in a stadium about 10 miles away from the debate in the heavily Latino city of Hialeah.
Trump's campaign has suggested the Republican National Committee should stop having debates and instead focus on supporting his campaign.
Top advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita raised Trump’s debunked claims of election fraud and said that if the party does not cancel debates, it is “an admission to the grassroots that their concerns about voter integrity are not taken seriously and national Republicans are more concerned about helping Joe Biden than ensuring a safe and secure election.”
The RNC did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Price reported from Washington. Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.