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GOP candidates hit Trump and back Israel. Here are highlights from the Republican debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — As they face an increasingly urgent task to emerge as a clear alternative to former President Donald Trump, five Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday for the party’s latest debate.

Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the race, skipped the event, as he has the first two, citing his polling advantage. There was no shortage of noteworthy confrontations on stage, as the participants debated the Israel-Hamas war, the future of abortion rights and Trump himself.

But with the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses approaching, it seemed unlikely that the debate fundamentally changed the presidential nomination fight.

Here are some debate takeaways:

The foreign policy debate

Wednesday marked the first time the presidential candidates gathered on a debate stage since war broke out between Israel and Hamas, resulting in a sharper foreign policy conversation compared to previous forums.

The contenders were unified in offering robust support for Israel and bemoaned antisemitism, especially on liberal college campuses. But they said virtually nothing about protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The GOP’s familiar foreign policy split, however, resurfaced when the exchanges veered into the war in Ukraine, the possibility of China confronting Taiwan and how to handle Venezuela’s oil market.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all sounded traditional GOP notes, backing military aid to Ukraine, calling for vastly increased investment in the military and linking all the global conflicts.

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy tried to set himself apart, claiming the rest of the stage was part of a bipartisan foreign policy establishment that blundered into repeated disasters in foreign wars. A longtime critic of aid to Ukraine, he followed up his condemnation of antisemitism by calling that country’s Jewish president “a Nazi.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed like he was straddling the divide. At one point, he dodged a question about Ukraine and China by talking about boosting security on the southern border and suggesting he’d deport immigrants from the Middle East.

The candidates all talked tough. But the party divide over the Ukraine war ran subtly through the night and it’s not clear they’d each act the same should they actually make it to the Oval Office.

Taking on Trump

All of the candidates are trying to overtake Trump, who is the dominant front-runner in the primary. But for the most part, they’ve spent the primary campaign avoiding any opportunity to take on the former president.

That became harder during the first debate hosted by a network that wasn’t affiliated with the Trump-friendly Fox News. Moderators from NBC News opened by pressing the contenders to articulate why they — and not Trump — should become the Republican nominee.

There was hardly a robust takedown of Trump, who remains popular among the GOP base and hosted a rival event Wednesday. But DeSantis was the most forceful.

“Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” he said, declaring that Trump owed it to Republican primary voters to show up and explain his record.

But even DeSantis’ strong words spanned less than 30 seconds. And he stopped short of questioning Trump’s “balls” for skipping the debate, as he had in recent days.

The other candidates were less aggressive.

Asked why he’s a better nominee than Trump, Ramaswamy went so far as to blame Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel — not Trump — for the GOP’s repeated losses in national elections since Trump won the presidency in 2016.

When she was asked about Trump, Haley made a passing reference of the national debt that piled up under his watch. Scott said the GOP needs to win over independent voters. Christie devoted one sentence to highlighting Trump’s legal troubles.

The lack of pointed attacks against Trump may underscore the difficulty of attacking someone who’s not onstage. But his rivals didn’t try hard either. Wednesday’s debate is the latest example for why Trump may have been smart to skip the debates altogether.

The Ramaswamy and Haley feud

There were five candidates on the debate stage, but the vendetta between two of them stood out — Haley and Ramaswamy.

The two children of Indian immigrants have collided during previous debates. But the tension intensified Wednesday night with Ramaswamy gleefully playing the role of aggressor. He took several initial digs at Haley — at one point he called her and DeSantis “Cheney in 3-inch heels,” a reference to controversial former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz, a congresswoman excommunicated from the GOP for her criticism of Trump.

But it was halfway through the debate, after Haley said she’d respond to Ramaswamy’s digs rather than answer a question about banning Tik-Tok, that Ramaswamy made his most shocking attack.

Noting Haley hadn’t answered the question, Ramaswamy said, “Her own daughter was using the app for a long time, so you might want to take care of your daughter first.”

Haley responded by forcefully telling Ramaswamy to “leave my daughter out of your voice.” She later said, “You’re just scum.”

Ramaswamy has dominated all three of the debates with his pugnacious style. It hasn’t necessarily helped him politically — his biting attacks seem to turn off voters — but it drowns out all the other candidates. He’s also clearly gotten under the skin of his rivals, who spend precious time going after him.

Ramaswamy has even less of a path to victory than the rest of the very distant field, and each debate he dominates is another lost opportunity for anyone to change the trajectory of the GOP primary.

A path forward on abortion

Republicans have had no answers on abortion ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. In election after election, including several this week, Democrats have used the issue to their advantage.

On Wednesday night, Haley, the only woman onstage, tried to give her party a path forward for navigating the delicate political issue.

Haley’s approach was decidedly softer and more personal than what the men onstage offered.

“I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” she said, suggesting that she respected the decisions of states to protect abortion rights even if she didn’t agree with them.

And she made clear that the next Republican president would not be in position to institute a national ban on abortion without 60 votes in the Senate, which isn’t anywhere close to the horizon. Instead, she suggested Republicans in Washington work for what could be achievable: a ban on late-term abortions, policies that encourage adoption and increased accessibility of contraception.

“Let’s focus on how to save as many babies as we can and support as many moms as we can and stop the judgment. We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore,” Haley said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Meanwhile, the men onstage offered more of the same message that failed to resonate with voters across Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania earlier in the week.

DeSantis attacked Democrats for supporting abortions without any time restrictions. Echoing the criticism, Scott said it was “unethical and immoral” to allow abortions up to the day of birth.

Haley’s message might be popular among some suburban women, a group the GOP has struggled with during recent elections, but it’s decidedly out of step with many activists that make up the Republican base. Still, her answer Wednesday night is a reminder why some Democratic officials fear her as a possible Biden opponent more than any of the other candidates.

The race for second

After two more hours of likely also-rans arguing over mostly small differences, it seems clear that the Republican presidential contest is mainly a race to finish a distant second.

No one is even close to Trump and no one is trying to catch him. Instead, the candidates seem to be fighting over who can be the best alternative to him in the event the unthinkable happens to sideline the four-times-indicted, constitutionally challenged, 77-year-old front-runner.

Even Christie, whose entire campaign was predicated on him being the only Republican brave enough to attack the former president, stayed quiet on Trump unless asked about him by the moderators.

By now it’s clear that no one sees a path to actual victory in the primary. Instead, everyone is acting like their best bet is that the alternative universe of the debates, where Trump is not even on the stage, somehow becomes reality for Republican voters.

That’s the only way these debates likely matter anymore. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the Trump era, it’s that you can never tell what will happen next.

Nicholas Riccardi And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press