The fierce urgency of being No. 2: GOP candidates fight each other as Trump cruises toward nomination

When moderator Lester Holt opened the third Republican debate Wednesday night by asking the candidates why they would be better GOP nominees than Donald Trump, they were a little more willing than they’ve been before to criticize the former president.

But in the two hours that followed, Trump’s challengers didn’t keep it up, preferring to spar with one another and aim an occasional slap at President Joe Biden. Which means, for those keeping score on debate winners and losers: Count the Republican frontrunner who wasn’t there as the big winner. Again.

Trump was down the road from the Miami debate, in Hialeah, speaking for more than an hour at one of his signature rallies. “Nobody’s talking about it,” Trump told the crowd in a brief and shrugging reference to the competing forum, using derogatory nicknames for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. “So it’s 61% for your favorite president, me, and 10% for Ron DeSanctimonious and 7% for birdbrain,” he said.

The blows on Trump at the debate were glancing, his standing as the GOP’s presumptive nominee unchallenged. His refusal to join the forums and his mounting legal perils seem to have only hardened his towering advantage over the rest of the GOP field.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the Republican National Committee presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the Republican National Committee presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.

The field of five discussed a litany of SerIous Matters, particularly on foreign policy – on Israel and Hamas, the war in Ukraine, the threat from China, even the number of Navy ships they would build as presidents.

But Trump’s lead in the race and his absence from the debate stage made the two-hour forum at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, hosted by NBC News and the Salem Radio Network, seem more like an academic exercise than an encounter likely to affect the nomination battle that begins in just two months, in Iowa.

The candidates eligible to participate in the official debate had been winnowed but the dynamic that has defined the contest from the start hasn’t budged. Trump is more firmly ensconced as the presumptive nominee than he was when the first debate was held in August. He skipped that one, too.

Now there’s a word you rarely hear in a debate

Not that there wasn’t the occasional viral moment in Miami.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy accused Haley of hypocrisy in criticizing TikTok because her daughter has acknowledged using the app, “so you might want to take care of your family first.

“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley replied icily. “You’re just scum.”

Ramaswamy, whose support in national polls and key early states is in single digits, was scrambling for headlines in the news and traction in the race. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has seen his standing fade, had his eyes on a rising Haley. All of them seemed to be feeling the fierce urgency to finish second.

So what’s second prize?

Short of winning the nomination, there are some advantages to making a run for it.

The challengers are all younger than the 77-year-old Trump, and any of them might envision a run for president in 2028 or later. That could make this a helpful practice run for, say, Haley and DeSantis that introduces them to prospective donors and voters.

Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott might end up in the Cabinet in a Trump administration. There’s been speculation about Scott as a running mate for Trump, though he has mused that he might choose a woman as his vice-presidential nominee. Christie has presented himself as a truth-teller, burnishing his credentials as Trump’s sharpest critic.

‘I’m sick of Republicans losing’

This time, the other candidates also offered some criticism of the frontrunner.

DeSantis suggested Trump was responsible for Democratic victories in Tuesday’s off-year elections in Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. “He said Republicans were going to get tired of winning,” the Florida governor said, repeating a line Trump has used. “We saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing.”

Haley said Trump was “getting weak in the knees” in standing up to Russia in Ukraine and suggested his day had come and gone. Christie said that a candidate who was “focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.”

In fact, though, Trump is now well on his way to achieving the first of those goals, of landing the nomination at the top of the GOP ticket in 2024.

Meanwhile, the fourth GOP debate has been set for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Late Wednesday night, Trump’s campaign announced he wouldn’t join that one, either.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP candidates battle for No. 2 as Trump cruises toward nomination

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