The intense battle for second place heats up in the third GOP debate, with Trump staying strong

MIAMI — Former President Donald Trump‘s primary Republican challengers subtly criticized him during an NBC News debate in Miami on Wednesday night while continuing to set themselves apart from the rest of the field.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley exchanged criticism while carefully avoiding direct confrontations with Trump, raising doubts about their plans to challenge his lead in national and state polls.

“Both candidates exhibited readiness to lead the country during serious times,” remarked Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett. “The GOP is now at a crossroads in deciding whether to nominate a viable presidential candidate or an inflammatory a political figure that caters to the right-wing base, potentially leading to further election defeats.”

Despite their efforts, both DeSantis and Haley trail significantly behind Trump in national polls. Trump notably skipped the debate for the third time, choosing to hold a rally in nearby Hialeah instead. DeSantis and Haley’s criticism of Trump during the debate was notably less confrontational than his usual rhetoric.

Haley was even less aggressive, stating that Trump was the right president in the past but not currently so. She highlighted his mounting debt and shifting stance on foreign policies.

DeSantis took aim at Trump’s unfulfilled promises, including the border wall and draining the swamp — emphasizing that Republicans are tired of losing.

Meanwhile, lesser-known candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy attempted to make an impact with direct attacks on fellow candidates. However, these tactics failed to resonate with the debate audience and met stern retaliation from Haley.

While DeSantis and Haley sparred on various topics, including China and energy policy, they presented few substantive differences on key issues such as Israel, drug cartels, and abortion restrictions.

Debate analysts pointed out that both DeSantis and Haley outshone the other candidates, but with Trump’s absence, their efforts to differentiate themselves from each other were overshadowed.

Former Rep. Will Hurd and other political allies perceived this as a sign of Haley’s upward surge in state polls, putting her in a close competition for second place with DeSantis. Likewise, DeSantis supporters praised his composed and measured demeanor, positioning him as a viable alternative to Trump.

Despite the focus on Haley and DeSantis, NBC News reported that a veteran GOP strategist remains convinced that nothing from the debate will matter when it comes to the bigger picture, with the emphasis shifting to the next night’s football game.

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