Five Republican presidential candidates clashed on the debate stage Wednesday over Ukraine, China, abortion, and the future path of the party, while saving some of their ire for the absent frontrunner, Donald Trump.
While the challengers appeared united in their support of Israel and its war against Hamas, tensions flared -- including fierce personal attacks -- in the debate barely two months before the all-important first votes in the White House nomination battle.
The third televised debate occurred a day after Democrats snatched key election victories in conservative and swing states, particularly over abortion rights, but the perennially thorny issue was not discussed until more than 90 minutes into the two-hour event.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy voiced fury about their party's recent political losses, while Trump's onetime UN envoy Nikki Haley, who is enjoying growing momentum in the race, urged Americans to "find consensus" over reproductive rights.
The ex-president, leading in every major Republican nomination poll, snubbed the Miami event and instead held a rally just a few miles away, maintaining his strategy of refusing to debate challengers.
The remaining candidates in a thinning field have little prospect for meaningful breakthroughs against the populist leader of the hard-right Make America Great Again movement -- even though Trump faces multiple criminal indictments and will spend considerable time ahead of the 2024 election in courtrooms.
But DeSantis, currently polling in second, swiftly pointed out Trump's absence and delivered a glancing blow, telling viewers: "He said Republicans were going to get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night. I'm sick of Republicans losing."
Trump "owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance."
- 'Party of losers' -
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the only pretender to the Republican crown willing to mount harsh attacks on Trump, delivered fresh criticism.
"Anybody who's going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party," Christie said.
Ramaswamy offered a devastating assessment of the Republican Party's recent performances including Tuesday, when conservative-leaning Ohio voted to enshrine abortion rights in the state's constitution.
"We've become a party of losers," he fumed.
"We have lost 2018, 2020, 2022 -- no red wave that ever came. We got trounced last night, in 2023," he said. "And I think that we have to have accountability in our party."
After an initially brisk start to his campaign, DeSantis is struggling to become the new face for Republicans -- casting himself as an equally hard-right but more youthful and scandal-free version of the 77-year-old Trump.
But he lags behind Trump by nearly 45 percentage points, according to polling aggregator RealClearPolitics.
Closing in is Haley, who has benefited from DeSantis's decline and promotes a more centrist view on abortion.
While describing herself as "unapologetically pro-life", Haley said it was unrealistic to seek a nationwide ban on abortion.
"So let's find consensus" on ending late-term abortions and making contraception more available, she said.
"Let's make sure that none of these state laws put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty for getting an abortion."
- 'Dick Cheney in three-inch heels' -
In the foreign policy discussion, all five displayed unconditional support for US ally Israel.
Haley declared she would "finish" Hamas and that "the last thing we need to do is to tell Israel what to do" in its war.
Fireworks erupted between Haley and political novice Ramaswamy who, in a bid to denounce the party establishment, branded Haley "Dick Cheney in three-inch heels," referring to the Republican former vice president.
At one point Haley called Ramaswamy "scum" for mentioning her daughter as the candidates clashed over TikTok.
At his rally in Hialeah, Trump declared the debates "not watchable," and sought to present himself as a protective commander-in-chief.
"I kept America safe. I kept Israel safe, I kept Ukraine safe, and I kept the world safe," he told his supporters.
"Israel, Ukraine would have never happened under the Trump administration."
Ramaswamy slammed Ukraine as "not a paragon of democracy," and said the country has "celebrated a Nazi" in its President Volodymyr Zelensky -- who is Jewish. His position earned rebukes from Haley and Christie, who said Washington should support Kyiv.
The Republican primaries kick off on January 15 in Iowa. The eventual nominee is expected to face President Joe Biden in next November's presidential election.