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GOP presidential candidates debated in Miami, Donald Trump attended a rally


We're talking to voters who will cast the first Republican ballots of the 2024 presidential nominating contests. Five candidates who want to make inroads here met on a Miami, Fla., debate stage last night. The party's front-runner, former President Donald Trump, was also in South Florida, but he skipped the debate for a rally. NPR's Domenico Montanaro was at the debate in Miami. NPR's Ashley Lopez was at the Trump event in Hialeah. Domenico, let's start with you in Miami. So what are the biggest things that people need to know coming out of the debate?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, the field really winnowed significantly - only five people on this stage, as you mentioned, but it might get even smaller than that. Really, there were two tiers here with, really, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor, really standing above the other three candidates. And DeSantis really was energized. Maybe it was a home state sort of thing. He sparred with Haley a little bit on China and energy, but very tame. On substance, you know, this is the first debate since the Israel-Hamas war, and the candidates were very hawkish. Let's take a listen to some of what they had to say at this debate hosted by NBC News.


RON DESANTIS: We will stand with Israel in word and in deed, in public and in private.

NIKKI HALEY: The only thing we should be doing is supporting them and eliminating Hamas.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: So what I would tell Bibi is that Israel has the right and the responsibility to defend itself.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: America is here, no matter what it is you need at any time, to preserve the state of Israel.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Domenico, I mean, things got testy a couple of times. What grabbed you from the night?

MONTANARO: Yeah, the most testy moment was really when Vivek Ramaswamy decided to kind of go after Nikki Haley, hitting her on foreign policy. Let's listen to how he did that at this debate hosted by NBC News.


RAMASWAMY: Do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels?

HALEY: Yes, I'd first like to say they're 5-inch heels, and I don't wear them unless you can run in them.

MONTANARO: Yeah. She also then said that she uses them as ammunition, so it was a very testy moment. And a lot of people really felt like Ramaswamy went too far when he kind of brought Haley's daughter into it later on, talking about how she was on TikTok previously and that Haley hadn't done anything about it. And Haley really took umbrage with that. And I've never heard before in a debate something like this, but Haley said - you could clearly see her say, you're just scum.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Ashley Lopez, you were with the one person who was not in that room, the front-runner, Donald Trump. Did Donald Trump talk at all about what was happening near him?

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: He did. I mean, Trump acknowledged the debate that was happening close by, and he sort of shrugged off any of its importance. He said he's clearly on the path to secure the party's nomination, and that none of the other candidates on the debate stage stand a chance, which right now is pretty much true. He then set his sights on two of the candidates on the debate stage, that top tier that Domenico was talking about, one of them being Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Trump talked about how he helped him get elected when he first ran for governor and basically called him a traitor in so many words for now running against him. And not surprisingly, he also started taking aim at former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has been on the ascent. He had similar things to say about Haley, who he appointed to be his U.N. ambassador when he was in the White House.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, at Trump's rallies, it's often some of the same things over and over again.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Immigration, opposition to Biden, wokeism (ph) - anything new that was said?

LOPEZ: You know, I think one of the more interesting tangents Trump went on during the rally had to do with age. Trump talked about how Ron DeSantis has sort of branded himself as Trump but younger, right? And he told the crowd that there's nothing wrong with that, but he personally felt that all the best businessmen he knew and all the smartest people he knew were over 80, as to sort of get ahead of any critiques of his age.


DONALD TRUMP: I know a man that fought all his life to make money, and he became a billionaire from 80 to 90. Some of the greatest leaders in history have been way over 80.

LOPEZ: I don't know, I found this pretty interesting because age is currently playing a big role in the upcoming election, right? And Trump has been one of the loudest voices critiquing Biden for his age. So it's interesting that Trump is sort of getting ahead of any similar critique that might come his way.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, Trump and Biden are only a few years apart.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Domenico, what was missing from the debate? Anything that you expected to hear but then didn't hear much about?

MONTANARO: Well, obviously the biggest thing missing was Trump, the elephant, not in the room. But on the issues, I think abortion was really something that I was surprised came up as late as it did. It didn't come up until about 15, 20 minutes left in the debate and talking about the elections that Republicans lost on Tuesday in places like Ohio and Virginia on this issue. And really, the candidates had very few answers to this problem for Republicans in where they're really losing the middle of the electorate. They're not able to really win over swing voters. They've tried with crime as an issue, and it really hasn't served them well to be able to win them over. You know, Tim Scott posed a 15-week federal ban, something that he hadn't committed to early in the campaign. Nikki Haley really stuck to this line about consensus. And it's a really interesting line she's trying to walk there, trying to appeal to the middle, but it doesn't make her look like she has much moral clarity on the subject.

MARTÍNEZ: Ashley, I've been in Iowa the last few days, and no one seems to be jazzed over any of the candidates. So I'm wondering, at the rally, at Trump's rally, how did people feel about his message and the other candidates they have to choose from?

LOPEZ: Well, rallies like this are obviously where you will find some of Trump's most fervent supporters, so it's not surprising that everyone that I talked to isn't interested in any candidates other than Trump, either. And because this was Florida, I was curious to see if any of the voters there perhaps supported their governor, Ron DeSantis, at some point. It might at least have a positive association with him. But I did not find that to be true.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ashley Lopez and NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, you two.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.