Five Republican candidates will take the stage Wednesday for the third GOP presidential debate in Miami as the field has begun to dwindle.
The debate, hosted by NBC News along with the Republican Jewish Coalition and Salem Radio Network, will feature Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.). Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum both failed to reach the requirements needed to qualify for participation, and former Vice President Mike Pence has dropped out of the race since the last debate.
Former President Trump will skip the event for the third straight time, instead holding a rally about 15 miles away during the debate.
Here are five things to watch for:
Can Haley cement her spot as Trump’s main contender?
Though DeSantis has been seen as Trump’s main rival, Haley is the one who has gained momentum in recent weeks.
The former South Carolina governor has already turned in two strong debate performances in August and September. She notched several memorable moments in sparring with other candidates in both debates, notably telling Ramaswamy, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber” in the most recent one.
In an apparent sign of her strong debate showings, Haley has gained traction in the polls, closing in on DeSantis for second place nationally and in key states. She was tied with DeSantis in Iowa at 16 percent in a poll last week and just about 1 point behind him in a national poll from late last month.
Now, Wednesday’s debate presents Haley with an opportunity to solidify her status as the one to take on Trump head-to-head.
With yet another strong performance, it may bolster her argument that she is the Republican candidate best positioned to face President Biden in a general election. She will also be able to point to recent polling that shows her with sizable leads over Biden in key swing states.
Does DeSantis take a more aggressive tack?
DeSantis spent months as the clear main alternative to Trump for the GOP nomination, but he has struggled in recent months. The gap between Trump and DeSantis has been growing since earlier this year, while Haley gains on the Florida governor.
DeSantis largely faded into the background during the first debate in August, and while he fared better in the second debate, receiving applause at times, he was unable to generate any buzzworthy moments. Some polling showed viewers saw him as one of the winners of both debates, but he has remained stagnant in polling.
The third debate offers DeSantis an opportunity to make a more aggressive stand to establish himself as the clear alternative to Trump, especially to fend off a rising Haley.
With Trump not attending, DeSantis will once again be at center. He largely avoided being attacked in the first debate, but came under some fire in the second. The third debate could be a moment for the other candidates to go after him even harder.
What role will the Israel-Hamas war play in the debate?
The war between Israel and Hamas had not begun by the time of the second debate in late September, so the debate Wednesday will be the first opportunity for the Republican candidates to discuss their positions.
The Republican Party has historically positioned itself as a staunch supporter of Israel, and several of the candidates have expressed their support for the country in the weeks since Hamas’s invasion in early October.
Discussions on the war may present Haley with the biggest opportunity to stand out. She has been a strong advocate of Israel for years, including during her time as UN ambassador. In previous debates, she has defended the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel and said Israel acts as a line of defense against Iran.
Candidates might also take the opportunity to slam Trump over controversial comments he has made on the conflict. The former president faced faced backlash for criticizing Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and for calling the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah “very smart.”
Ramaswamy may also take attacks from his fellow candidates for saying in August that that he hoped for Israel to normalize relations with more of its neighbors so additional aid for Israel “won’t be necessary” by 2028. He also said last month that U.S. aid for Israel should be “contingent” on it having a plan for Gaza beyond “destroy Hamas.”
What does Tim Scott do to stand out?
Scott is a widely liked senator and has tried to run a positive campaign but has struggled to make any significant inroads in the 2024 race.
He took a more low-key approach during the first debate that did not yield him any significant moments. Haley, who also hails from South Carolina, looked more impressive.
Scott stepped up in the second debate, being more aggressive in hitting Ramaswamy over his business connections to China and confronting Haley over her previous support for raising the gas tax in South Carolina.
He also slammed DeSantis over his defense of Florida’s education curriculum on slavery.
But with Scott only hovering around 2 percent nationally, he needs to have a good night in which he stands out to keep up with DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy.
How much attention does the event draw?
Despite the clashing that will likely happen on the stage in Miami, attention during the event will probably be at least somewhat split, with Trump holding a rally at the same time.
Trump almost certainly was the main winner from the second debate, even though he wasn’t there. While the candidates on stage were squabbling and taking swipes at each other, the former president was holding a rally in Michigan amid the United Auto Workers strike, a signal that he has moved on to the general election.
Trump not even attending the debates puts that much more pressure on the candidates to find a way to stand out, make headlines and rise in the polls.
The candidates on stage may also have to deal with a decreasing audience in general. About 9.5 million people tuned in for the second debate in September, down from 13 million who watched the first one in August.