Still from the third 2024 Republican presidential debate
Video still from the third 2024 Republican presidential debate, televised by NBC

When I was in col­lege, sev­er­al of us gath­ered one night around a rec room table to play a war game on the theme of the World War II D‑Day land­ing in France.

It was a beery occa­sion in which one play­er cheat­ed and moved the pow­er­ful Panz­er Lehr chip clos­er to the Allied beaches.

He was caught. The oppos­ing play­er became gen­uine­ly, momen­tar­i­ly angry, until a bystander joked that it was a game and the Allies had bro­ken through Ger­man lines to the point where the Fuhrer was con­tem­plat­ing suicide.

The dor­mi­to­ry scene was reen­act­ed on stage tonight as five Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates met on stage in Mia­mi for a mean­ing­less clash.

All the debaters trail far behind fron­trun­ner Don­ald Trump, who skipped the event and held a ral­ly not far away.

The con­test became fierce, how­ev­er, because the stakes were so low.

The top­ic was Tik­Tok and whether the Chi­nese-owned social media net­work is being used to spread ene­my pro­pa­gan­da and cap­ture America’s youth.

Yep, Repub­li­cans do debate this top­ic, with no more vig­or­ous Tik­Toc crit­ic than ex-South Car­oli­na Gov­er­nor Nik­ki Haley.

Rival Vivek Ramaswamy said he’s used Tik­Tok to con­vey his cam­paign and made a sneer­ing ref­er­ence to Haley: “She made fun of me for actu­al­ly join­ing Tik­Tok while her own daugh­ter was actu­al­ly using the app for a long time.”

“Leave my daugh­ter out of your voice,” Haley snapped in a moth­er griz­zly response, then mut­tered, “You’re just scum.”

Haley avoid­ed him on stage after the debate. She’s been climb­ing in the polls and has caught Flori­da Gov­er­nor Ron DeSan­tis is a cou­ple of ear­ly states. But each is about forty points behind the fre­quent­ly-indict­ed fron­trun­ner Trump.

The also-rans have been left to strug­gle for talk­ing points and com­pete for atten­tion. They faced off under dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances tonight, in that Democ­rats had just used the cause of repro­duc­tive rights to sweep the board in a local elec­tion year. The Repub­li­cans’ evan­gel­i­cal base is fierce­ly anti-abor­tion, while sev­en states – includ­ing red states Ohio, Ken­tucky and Kansas – have vot­ed to pro­tect access to abor­tion care since the Dobbs deci­sion was hand­ed down.

Haley showed signs of rec­og­niz­ing Repub­li­cans’ unpop­u­lar posi­tion, and alien­ation of sub­ur­ban women. “I don’t judge any­one for being pro-choice and I don’t want them judg­ing me for being pro-life,” she said. “Stop the judg­ment. We don’t need to divide Amer­i­cans over this issue anymore.”

Sen­a­tor Tim Scott (R‑South Car­oli­na) and ex-Gov­er­nor Chris Christie (for­mer­ly R‑New Jer­sey) clashed on the issue. Scott was adamant that there should be a nation­al ban on abor­tion after fif­teen weeks of pregnancy.

Christie remind­ed him that lawyers seek­ing to over­turn Roe v. Wade had argued that the legal­i­ty of access to abor­tion should be left up to the states.

Haley added that no nation­al abor­tion ban could ever pass the U.S. Sen­ate. Ramaswamy ram­bled on about “the sex­u­al respon­si­bil­i­ty of men” and forc­ing guys to assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for preg­nan­cies as an alter­na­tive to termination.

Abor­tion wasn’t the only unpop­u­lar Repub­li­can posi­tion debat­ed on stage.

Chris Christie made the case for rais­ing the retire­ment age under Social Secu­ri­ty. He didn’t say by how much, but cit­ed his thir­ty-year-old son as one who should bear the bur­den: “If he can’t adjust to a few year increase in Social Secu­ri­ty retire­ment age over the next forty years, I’ve got big­ger prob­lems with him than his Social Secu­ri­ty payments.”

Haley, as well, was look­ing at her off­spring work­ing longer in the future.

“Those who have been promised should keep it (Social Secu­ri­ty),” she said, “but for like my kids in their twen­ties, you go and you say, ‘We’re going to change the rules.’ You change the retire­ment age for them.”

DeSan­tis is gov­er­nor of a state with huge num­bers of retired cit­i­zens (and vot­ers). “As gov­er­nor of Flori­da I know a few peo­ple on Social Secu­ri­ty,” he said – as close as DeSan­tis will ever come to mirth.

“It’s one thing to just pay it on life expectan­cy but we have had a sig­nif­i­cant decline in life expectan­cy in this century.”

In oth­er words, he wouldn’t raise the age of eligibility.

Sup­port for Israel in its war with Hamas has become a holy grail with Repub­li­cans, along with a tool to bash “The Squad” – young pro­gres­sive women of col­or in Con­gress – and demo­nize the nation’s lead­ing col­leges and their stu­dents. They’ve been open­ing up on cease-fire protests.

So it was tonight. DeSan­tis has played boss to Florida’s State Uni­ver­si­ty Sys­tem and boast­ed of telling col­lege admin­is­tra­tors to ban the group Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine. “We’re not going to use state dol­lars to finance jihad,” he declared.

Col­lege admin­is­tra­tors are, charged Haley, more tol­er­ant of anti­semitism than racism. “If the Ku Klux Klan were doing this, every col­lege pres­i­dent would be up in arms: This is dif­fer­ent. You should treat it exact­ly the same. Anti­semitism is just as awful as racism.”

Christie gave a far dif­fer­ent answer, draw­ing on his expe­ri­ence as U.S. Attor­ney in New Jer­sey at the time of the Sep­tem­ber 11th attacks.

He talked with rab­bis, pledg­ing to pros­e­cute crimes against Jews, as well as Mus­lim lead­ers fear­ful of attacks on mosques.

“It takes lead­er­ship to do this,” said Christie. “You must work with both sides.”

It was a fit­ting choice of words.

The can­di­dates on stage have tried to “work with both sides,” mobi­liz­ing anti-Trump Repub­li­cans while peel­ing sup­port away from the front-run­ner. They’ve proven sin­gu­lar­ly inept at so doing, DeSan­tis more than any oth­er. The Trump base can­not be budged, and every effort brings ridicule from the frontrunner.

DeSan­tis did briefly go after Trump last night, for not par­tic­i­pat­ing in the debate and for a nation­al debt that bal­looned dur­ing his presidency.

Trump was, mean­while, coun­ter­pro­gram­ming with a ral­ly near­by in Hialeah. He was bring­ing Flori­da Sen­a­tor Rick Scott on board his campaign.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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