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Trump“s rivals pledge to back Israel amid swipes at third Republican debate


Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis look over at each other during the second Republican candidates’ debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S. September 27, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination talked tough about the Israel-Hamas conflict at Wednesday’s debate, pledging unconditional support for Israel and attacking Democratic President Joe Biden’s handling of the crisis.

Asked what message they would send to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “I will be telling Bibi, ‘Finish the job once and for all with these butchers Hamas, they’re terrorists,'” using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador who has staked much of her candidacy on her foreign policy credentials, faulted Biden for pressing Israel to consider humanitarian pauses.

“The last thing we need to do is to tell Israel what to do,” she said. “The only thing we should be doing is supporting them and eliminating Hamas.”

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said Biden should carry out direct strikes against Iran, a sponsor of Hamas, in retaliation for attacks on U.S. military personnel by Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq. He spoke shortly after the U.S. carried out strikes against a weapon storage facility in Syria that the Pentagon said was used by Iranian forces.

“If you want to make a difference, you cannot just continue to have strikes in Syria on warehouses,” he said. “You actually have to cut off the head of the snake, and the head of the snake is Iran and not simply the proxies.”

The discourse on the Israel-Hamas conflict followed the debate’s opening segment, in which the candidates were asked to make the case for being the Republican standard-bearer over Trump, the race’s clear frontrunner in national opinion polls.

For the third time, the former president did not show up for his party’s debate, instead holding a rival event close by, where he again suggested the Republican Party should cancel future debates.

“It’s time for the Republican establishment to stop wasting time and resources,” Trump said, adding that the debate was “not watchable.”

DeSantis criticized Trump for skipping the event, which took place in their shared home state of Florida, and suggested that the party’s poor showing in Tuesday’s off-year elections should be laid at Trump’s feet.

“He said Republicans were gonna get tired of winning,” DeSantis said. “Well, we saw last night – I’m sick of Republicans losing!”

Haley, a former South Carolina governor, offered a more muted critique.

“Everybody wants to talk about President Trump. I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time,” she said. “I don’t think he’s the right president now.”

With the first Republican state nominating contest in Iowa little more than two months away, Trump’s rivals may not have many more chances to derail the commanding lead he holds among Republican voters in public opinion polling, despite his multiple criminal indictments.

Trump, 77, has done his best to deny Haley and DeSantis a direct target, instead focusing on what he expects to be a rematch with Biden, 80, on Nov. 5, 2024.

In the two previous televised debates, Haley, 51, and DeSantis, 45, had been careful not to come down on Trump too hard for fear of alienating his supporters, whose backing they will need if they are to ultimately capture the Republican nomination in July.

The need for a breakout moment drove several candidates to train their fire on other debaters.

At one point during a discussion about whether to ban TikTok, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy noted that Haley’s daughter uses the app, prompting Haley to warn him not to mention her daughter again.

“You’re just scum,” she muttered.

Ramaswamy, who favors an isolationist approach to foreign policy, also said he would cut off aid to Ukraine, calling President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a “comedian in cargo pants.”

In response, Haley said the leaders of Russia and China were “salivating” at the notion that Ramaswamy could become U.S. president.

Haley and DeSantis, whose rivalry has intensified as Haley has grown stronger in a pair of previous debate performances, also clashed, with each accusing the other of being too welcoming to Chinese investment as governor.

In addition to pushing for a more muscular response abroad, the candidates vowed to punish Hamas sympathizers at home.

Asked about pro-Palestinian rallies that have proliferated on college campuses, Scott said he would withhold federal funding for any universities that fail to prevent antisemitism.

DeSantis promised to deport any students who expressed support for Hamas.

“If you are here on a student visa as a foreign national and you’re making common cause with Hamas, I’m canceling your visa and I’m sending you home,” he said. “No questions asked.”

A day after Democrats and abortion rights groups swept to victory in several state elections, the Republicans sought to formulate a winning message on an issue that has bedeviled the party since the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court last year eliminated a nationwide right to abortion.

Scott said he would support a federal 15-week ban, while Haley noted that any such legislation has essentially no chance of passing the closely divided U.S. Senate. DeSantis – who signed a six-week ban into law this year – did not address a federal law but said he stood for a “culture of life.”

The candidates attacked Biden over his stewardship of the economy, arguing that his focus on climate change had slowed growth. Haley and Christie said they would raise the retirement age for Social Security benefits for younger workers to help keep the program solvent, while Scott and DeSantis said they would not do so.

Polls show voters are unhappy with Biden’s economic record, despite the fact that inflation has slowed considerably and fears of a recession have faded amid continued economic growth. Biden’s approval rating slipped under 40% in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, his lowest mark since April.

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