MIAMI - Republican presidential candidates quickly criticized Donald Trump in Wednesday's third debate for skipping the event and suggested he was no longer the same person who won the White House.
With Trump again bypassing the debate in Miami to instead hold his own event in a nearby suburb, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, "He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance."
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is pulling some voter and donor interest from DeSantis, likewise said Trump "used to be right" on supporting Ukraine but "now he’s getting weak in the knees."
(From L) Former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson, former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former US Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy, former Governor from South Carolina and UN
The five people onstage face 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’ attacks and for his claims that a group attacking Israel was "very smart."
Haley, DeSantis and the others onstage 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.
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.
Trump has retained huge leads despite his efforts to try to overturn his 2020 election loss, his embrace of those jailed for storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and his facing four criminal indictments and a civil fraud case against his businesses for which he testified in New York this week.
His campaign has worked to overpower DeSantis in their shared home state and publicly said it wants to score blowout wins in early primary states to seal the nomination.
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.
DeSantis has used his official role as governor to show support for Israel, authorizing the state to fly hundreds of Americans evacuated from Israel to the U.S., ordered state universities to disband chapters of a pro-Palestinian group, and arranged to help send weapons, ammunition and other supplies to Israel.
Haley, also the former governor of South Carolina, has leaned into her experience as Trump's U.N. ambassador arguing in support of the Israeli government.
Haley and DeSantis have also become more frequent and vocal critics of Trump in recent weeks.
The race's overwhelming front-runner, meanwhile, was in a stadium about 10 miles away from the debate in the heavily Latino city of Hialeah.
Trump has refused to participate due to his large lead in national and early state polls.
Trump's campaign has suggested the Republican National Committee should stop having debates and instead focus on supporting his campaign.
Top advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita raised Trump’s debunked claims of election fraud and said that if the party does not cancel debates, it is "an admission to the grassroots that their concerns about voter integrity are not taken seriously and national Republicans are more concerned about helping Joe Biden than ensuring a safe and secure election."
The RNC did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Price reported from Washington. Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.