Nov. 8 (UPI) -- The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East were the central focus of Wednesday's Republican primary debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.
The Republican challengers moved between the wars, growing tensions with China and border security throughout the two-hour debate in Miami. Five candidates participated: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas was addressed at the top of the event with DeSantis given the first opportunity to respond. He said he would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "finish the job once and for all."
"We will stand with Israel in public and in private," DeSantis said.
Haley echoed DeSantis' sentiment, saying "finish them," but said some attention needs to be placed on Iran, as well.
"We need to be very clear-eyed. There's no Hamas -- Hezbollah without Iran," Haley said. "Who is funding Iran? China is buying Iranian oil. Russia is getting Iranian drones and missiles."
Scott redirected his focus to President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, saying there is "blood on their hands" due to past agreements with Iran. He later added that he supports approving $100 billion in aid to Israel to "let the world know 100% that we are standing with Israel."
The event was moderated by Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, and Kristen Welker, NBC White House correspondent and host of Meet The Press.
International conflict remained the focus of the debate for much of the first hour. Scott kicked off the conversation on further support for Ukraine, saying he is "very supportive." Again he placed the focus on Biden, saying he should more clearly state what the U.S. interest is in Ukraine and where the U.S. funding is going.
"The vital interest in Ukraine is in degrading the Russian military," he said. "Every day we get closer to the degradation of the Russian military and that is good news."
Ramaswamy has been a critic of supporting Ukraine at past debates. On Wednesday, he said he is "unpersuaded" by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's requests for assistance. He would then call Zelensky a Nazi and suggest that the Ukrainian territory that has been occupied by Russia actually belongs to Russia.
"Putin and President Xi [Jinping] are salivating at the thought of somebody like that becoming president," Haley said in response to Ramaswamy's comments. "America can never be so arrogant to think we don't need friends."
Haley added that she would not give Ukraine cash but would support it with ammunition and military equipment.
DeSantis ruled out ever sending U.S. soldiers to Ukraine, but said he would send troops to the southern border to stop illegal immigration. He added that he would also deport people who illegally immigrated from the Middle East.
The presidential hopefuls shared different visions for how to deter a violent conflict with China but they were in agreement that China is the greatest national security threat to the United States. Haley said the People's Liberation Army of China has created a modernized military that is not only a threat by land, sea and air, but in the realm of cyberspace.
"America needs to modernize our military and make sure we have the backs of Ukraine and Taiwan," Haley said. "That sends the biggest message to China. We should be arming Taiwan. There's nothing China fears more than knowing America has Taiwan's back."
Investing in the U.S. fleet of nuclear submarines would be the focus under a Christie presidency. He called the submarines in the U.S. Navy the "greatest deterrent to Chinese aggression."
Christie added that the United States needs to increase the size of its nuclear submarine program and keep a strong presence of submarines in the South China Sea without China knowing how many are there.
DeSantis agreed that deterring China will be a central issue in the future, stating that the "future of freedom will be determined in the Indo-Pacific."
"If China is able to be a world-leading power that will be very bad for you and your family," he said. "This is what the Soviet Union was to the post-World War II generation."
The term "energy independence" was also a common theme throughout the evening as candidates cited it in relation to China, inflation and the economy as a whole.
Christie and Scott agreed that easing restrictions on domestic energy producers would drive down prices for consumers, helping low-income families. Christie, along with DeSantis and Ramaswamy, said he would "unleash every bit of American energy," signaling that he would undo clean energy initiatives enacted under the Biden administration.
"Energy is the key to bringing this down," Christie said of inflation and the prices of goods and services.
Haley added that she would eliminate federal gas and diesel taxes, but said federal spending must also be reined in to ease the economic pressure on the middle class. She would direct the IRS to focus on investigating and penalizing those who fraudulently obtained or spent COVID relief funds.
The prospect of raising the age of retirement was posed to each candidate as they jostled over solutions to sustain programs like Social Security and Medicare. DeSantis and Scott said they would not consider raising the age of retirement while Christie and Haley said they would, though they did not say what the age should be raised to.
Christie said raising the age of retirement is one of the three adjustments that can be made to ensure that Social Security does not run out. The other two are changing eligibility and raising taxes. He said Americans are already overtaxed.
"Any candidate that tells you they're not going to take on entitlements is not being serious," Haley said. "What we need to do is keep our promises. Those who are promised it should keep it."
Haley said that people who are in their 20s are the ones that should expect changes to the retirement age and that change should reflect life expectancy. DeSantis noted that life expectancy in the United States has declined in recent years.
"When life expectancy is declining I don't see how you can change in the other direction," DeSantis said.
Scott agreed that raising the age of retirement would not be something he would consider.
"We have to grow our economy and cut our spending," Scott said. "If you actually want to tame this tiger, the way you do it is not by picking on seniors who paid into this program who deserve their money to come back to them."
Scott added that federal spending should return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
Tuesday's election results and abortion
The candidates reacted to Tuesday's election results around the country, which saw Ohio enshrine abortion access in its state constitution and Democrats win control of Virginia's state assembly.
Ramaswamy said the Republican Party has become "a party of losers," and called for Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to resign.
"If you want to come on stage tonight -- and resign, I will yield to you," he said.
Scott challenged Haley and DeSantis to commit to supporting a 15-week national limit on abortion but Haley said such a ban would not pass.
"When it comes to the federal law -- be honest. We haven't had 60 Senate votes in over 100 years," Haley said. "No Republican president can ban abortions any more than any Democrat president can ban these state laws. So let's find consensus. Let's agree on how we can ban late-term abortions."
Christie spoke against a federal ban, saying it is an issue that should be decided at the state level.
"I trust the people in this country, state by state, to make the call for themselves," Christie said. "We should not short circuit the process until every state's people have the right to weigh in."
Trump again did not participate in Wednesday's debate, but he was discussed in the first question tossed to the candidates. Asked why voters who support Trump should instead vote him, DeSantis said the former president is a "different guy than he was in 2016."
"He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he deserves another chance," DeSantis said. "He should explain to you why he didn't make Mexico pay for the wall."