GOP presidential candidates unified on Israel but divided on China as they debate without Trump

Republican presidential candidates from left, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News Wednesday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI — In their first debate since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, the Republican presidential candidates all declared hawkish support for Israel but squabbled over China and Ukraine as they faced growing pressure to try to catch Donald Trump — who was again absent.

At center stage were Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, who has appeared competitive with DeSantis’ second place position in some national polls. Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, declared she would end trade relations with China “until they stop murdering Americans from fentanyl — something Ron has yet to say that he’s going to do.”


In return, the Florida governor said Haley “welcomed” Chinese investment to her state, referencing land and economic development deals. Haley then accused DeSantis of scrubbing official websites to hide that Florida had pitched itself as welcoming to Chinese businesses.

The five people onstage faced new urgency to cut into Trump’s margins with the leadoff Iowa caucuses just two months away. Many of the candidates have gone after each other, hoping to break out as a viable alternative to the former president. They have been emphasizing their differences on foreign policy but also ripping Trump for his criticisms of the Israeli prime minister in the wake of Hamas’ attack and for his claims that a group attacking Israel was “very smart.”

Trump was the subject of the debate’s first question, when moderators asked each candidate to explain why they were the right person to beat him.

Said DeSantis, “He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance.”

Haley, who is pulling some voter and donor interest from DeSantis, said Trump “used to be right” on supporting Ukraine but “now he’s getting weak in the knees.”

In addition to DeSantis and Haley, also appearing onstage Wednesday were South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

They all said they were staunchly behind Israel as it mounts an offensive in Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,400 people. The candidates did not discuss humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza as the number of Palestinians killed in the war passed 10,500, including more than 4,300 children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.

Several also said they would pressure college campuses to crack down on antisemitism.

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 elections in several states went in their favor.

Ramaswamy tried to push his way into the center of the debate. Having long styled himself as someone willing to challenge his rivals, he repeatedly went after other candidates, notably Haley.

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