And that looks good on her. In the shiny hall of the NBC news channel, in front of a digitally waving flag, the five candidates actually radiate something resembling political gravitas during the third and final debate in the run-up to the primaries.
The playing field has been decimated, which helps. Mike Pence, the former vice president, has now withdrawn. Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum, unknown outsiders, are not qualified. Only five candidates remain: Governor Ron DeSantis (45), former diplomat Nikki Haley (51), Senator Tim Scott (58), Trump antagonist Chris Christie (61) and the flamboyant entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (38).
About the author
Thomas Rueb is a United States correspondent for de Volkskrant. He lives in New York. He is the author of the book Laura H.
They debate social services, abortion, immigration, the retirement age, China, Ukraine and the war in the Middle East. Substantive topics, relevant at the moment. When the candidates turn with their answers, moderators Lester Holt and Christen Welken call them to order.
Yet one question remains like a thundercloud hanging over the debate: does any of this matter, without Donald Trump?
Nothing to gain
The former president is again conspicuous in his absence on Wednesday. At the same time, he is holding a political rally in the city of Hialeah, less than twenty minutes away. There is nothing to be won for Trump in a debate. In the polls he receives more votes than all other candidates combined. Without the frontrunner to oppose, the other candidates can only lose.
The strongest argument they previously had against Trump: his unpopularity with the broad American public. The former president would be too weak a candidate to compete against Joe Biden, to whom he already lost once. A poll of The New York Times and research agency Siena knocked that argument out of their hands: Trump wins with flying colors over Biden.
What remains are attacks on Trump’s policies, character and ideas. But the candidates still do not or hardly dare to do so, for fear of alienating their indispensable supporters.
“Donald Trump is a different man than he was in 2016,” DeSantis tries. “He was the right president then, but not the right president now,” Haley begins cautiously. It doesn’t go much further. The lawsuits against Trump remain unnamed on Wednesday. All languages are silent about the testimony he gave this week in New York.
Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis dominate the third debate. They are competing together for second place behind Trump. DeSantis in particular benefits from the new peace on stage.
The governor of Florida had long been hyped as Trump’s challenger, but his lackluster performances in the previous debates did not help. He has been sinking in the polls for months and Haley, who has shined recently, is closing in on him. Now that DeSantis doesn’t have to bend for attention, he’s visibly more at ease.
The two agree on many topics. Their support for Israel in the bombing of Gaza appears rock solid, as does that of almost all Republicans. DeSantis: ‘I would against Bibi (Netanyahu, ed.) say: finish the job once and for all with these butchers.’ Haley says something similar.
Their major sore point is abortion. The success of the Democrats during the regional elections earlier this week was motivated by the disgust of conservative voters with the Republican anti-abortion policy. Haley takes a nuanced stance on Wednesday. “No Republican president is going to ban abortions,” she promises. DeSantis, who promotes just such a federal abortion ban and implemented strict restrictions in his home state, keeps a low profile.
The war in Ukraine has led to open disagreement. Ramaswamy is against support for the country, which he called ‘not a model of democracy’. “Don’t fall for the frame that this is a battle between good and evil.” Haley kicks back. According to her, Russia and China would like nothing more than for ‘someone like him to become president’.
Not much later, the streamlined debate descends into bickering, when the social medium TikTok and the influence of China are discussed. “Her own daughter was on TikTok for a long time,” Ramaswamy sneers at Haley. “Maybe you should take care of your own family first!” She reacts furiously. “You’re just scum,” Haley snaps at him. Afterwards they are the only ones who refuse to shake hands.