Did DeSantis evacuate Americans out of Israel?

Florida has about 542,000 residents receiving Social Security (about 229,000 age 65 and over). Pennsylvania has about 325,000 (82,000 age 65 and over), per federal data.

Lauren Mayk covers politics for NBC 10 (WCAU), reporting throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts the Battleground Politics podcast.

Google Trends offers a sense of who is generating interest during the debate, and so far it’s Haley and Ramawamy, followed by DeSantis, Christie and Scott.

DeSantis had the single biggest spike, while Haley has had at least six distinct bumps.

To sum up this debate so far: A bunch of candidates who significantly trail Trump — and are running out of time to make up the deficit — are offering shortened versions of their campaign stump speech, attacking each other and, aside from the first question, almost entirely ignoring the man they have to beat to win.

One way to measure how little Trump has come up in tonight’s debate: The fact Christie has yet to get booed during an answer.

TeamTrump hitting Ron DeSantis on Medicare and Social Security, as they have throughout the campaign, even before DeSantis announced. This and disloyalty to Trump have been their main points of attack throughout the campaign, as they try to draw older Florida voters to their camp.

More on energy in Texas: While many see the state as just an oil and gas state, it’s way more interesting and complex.

Because of then-Gov. Rick Perry’s policies from years ago, solar and wind power are pretty common in the state. Just look at today, according to the largest Texas power grid — ERCOT, 29.4 percent of the power generated in Texas today was from wind power. Natural gas is still the leader with 47.7%. Coal comes in at 15.4% and nuclear comes in at 7.4%.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

DeSantis actually got some laughs in the debate hall with that Social Security joke, a subtle nod to the masses of retirees living out their golden years in his home state.

That lighter moment is straight out of DeSantis’ stump speech. His joke about knowing a few Social Security recipients usually gets laughs on the campaign trail, too.

Laffer Curve reference! The economics wonks must be buzzing.

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Rita Mattson, 67, is an undecided voter from Dublin, New Hampshire.

“Social Security is NOT an entitlement,” she said. “Stop giving it to people who don’t deserve it.”

Fact check: Are there sleeper terrorist cells in America?

“I believe that we have sleeper terrorist cells in America. Thousands of people have come from Yemen, Iran, Syria and Iraq,” Scott said Wednesday.

This is likely false. While Scott said he “believes” there are sleeper cells, he did not cite any evidence, and there is scant proof of any such sleeper cells. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have called for the establishment of sleeper cells, but they have largely been debunked. After a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s military leader Qassem Soleimani, there were fears that Hezbollah sleeper cells might be activated, but there is no evidence of any such activity.

Ramaswamy and Scott seemed to be laughing and fist-bumping each other through Haley’s last answer.

The two haven’t exchanged attacks on the stage; it’s a surprising show of camaraderie between the two.

From Texas: When the candidates talk about energy, Texans listen intently — especially in the largest Texas county of Harris County. Harris County and the surrounding area are home to all three of the “big three” leaders in state government: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Speaker Dade Phelan. Sen. Ted Cruz is also from Harris County. Southeast Texas is the energy sector of the state, where the Houston ship channel is the main port in and out. According to the Texas Oil and Gas Association, there may be 1.4 million jobs in the energy sector.

While the jobs used to be concentrated solely in the oil industry — with special attention to the Permian basin around Midland and Odessa. However, now, Texas is also a natural gas state. Many gas companies are based in Houston, so the nods to fracking will be noticed in Southeast Texas.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

New Hampshire voter finds Ramaswamy ‘annoying’

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Victoria Gulla, 50, from Spofford, New Hampshire, said, Ramaswamy “is the most annoying. Again.”

Gulla’s thoughts on the debate so far: “So far I think there is a clear dichotomy between the policies of the past and the now. Haley, Scott and Christie are living in the past with their wars everywhere. DeSantis on the right track with more peace through strength, let Europe lead on their front, and take care of business at home (border), while supporting our allies in ways that don’t involve our troops.”

She is supporting DeSantis.

Fact check: Is China buying up American farmland?

“My message to [Chinese President] Xi Jinping is this, you are done buying land in this country,” said Ramaswamy.

“China is buying our farmland,” Scott said.

This is largely false. While state and federal lawmakers have been pushing to restrict Chinese purchases of land in America, a recent NBC News data analysis of real estate purchases filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed fewer than 1,400 acres were purchased by China in the past year and a half, out of 1.3 billion acres of agricultural land. A third of foreign-owned acres of U.S. land are held by Canadian interests, while Chinese interests hold just three-hundredths of 1%.

Warren Buffett is somehow catching strays.

Chuck Todd says: If it wasn’t for the first specific question asking about Trump, I’m struggling to think of too many other times where any of them have gone after Trump… only each other.

Garrett Haake responds: I’m reminded of our polling from over the summer that attacking Trump is the least popular action a candidate can take. They begrudgingly did it early and are clearly hoping they won’t have to again

The DeSantis war room X account has focused all of their posts during tonight’s debate on Nikki Haley attacks and no other candidates. Haley just caught up to DeSantis in Iowa according to our NBC/Des Moines Register poll.

Worth noting on the energy debate: The U.S. recently hit an all-time high in oil production.

Fact check: Did Ukraine ban Christians?

Criticizing American support for Ukraine’s war on Russia, Ramaswamy said U.S. dollars are funding “the banning of Christians,” mentioning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

This is misleading. Ukraine has taken steps to ban pro-Russia groups for months, taking steps to ban the activities of religious and political groups with ties to Russia. Last month the Ukrainian parliament took steps to ban the operations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to Moscow.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church split with the Russian Orthodox Church in May 2022, months after Russia invaded Ukraine.

TeamTrump’s X account has been putting out Trump policy videos or opposition research on DeSantis that are following the topics of the debate: China, TikTok, antisemitism in colleges and trade.

From Texas: Despite some recent good economic numbers, many Texans don’t feel like the economy is doing well. What’s interesting in trends from UT’s Texas Politics Project — Republican voters in Texas view the economy through a partisan lens. In Feb. 2020, when Trump was in office, 84% of GOP Texas voters thought the economy was better than the year before. That number plummeted to 14% by Feb. 2021, when Biden was in office.

The numbers began to go down steeply during the Covid pandemic but then never recovered. Meanwhile, the number of Texas Republicans who believe the economy is worse than a year before is now at 75% despite the recent good numbers.

A lot of this may be their media diet but the result is clear: Texas Republicans believe the economy is in the tank

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

You can feel the difference of having less candidates on the stage this time. The punchiness of Ramaswamy and Haley has less lost moments with the struggling candidates interjecting.

Ukrainian refugees concerned about views of war

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of caucusgoers at a bar in Altoona, Iowa. The debate watch party is being hosted by Americans For Prosperity.

Angela Boelens came to the debate watch party with two Ukrainian refugees, Liana Avetisian and Alina Mirzoian, whom she helped resettle into their new lives in Dewitt, Iowa. Boelens and the refugees were visibly disgusted by how Vivek Ramaswamy characterized the Ukrainian government.

“It scares me knowing that there’s a lot of Americans out there who don’t know the facts and don’t know how to fact-check the man,” said Boelens of Ramaswamy’s depiction of Ukraine as a corrupt nation.

Boelens, who is supporting Nikki Haley in the upcoming Iowa caucuses, said she was impressed by the way her favorite candidate talked about Ukraine.

“I think that the smart, savvy candidates like Nikki Haley, and even Chris Christie, I think they understand the connection between how we’re perceived around the world in terms of backing up and supporting these democracies.”

On the question of Trump’s and Biden’s different policy approaches to the Maduro regime: DeSantis said that he would reinstate the Trump sanctions and not rely on Venezuelan oil. This is something that resonates with the South Florida community because there is a large Venezuelan community here. South Florida has the largest Venezuelan community in the country.

Jackie Nespral is the main anchor for NBC6 in Miami and the host of Impact, a politics and current events show.

A GOP operative texts me: “If Nikki goes over and punches Vivek in the face, her poll numbers would shoot up.”

Chart: The leading targets on stage tonight

A little more than an hour in and Christie and Scott have yet to be attacked.

Tim Scott’s mother, Frances, who he referred to in this answer, is in the audience. She’s attended all three debates.

Someone in Trump-world is watching the debate.

Trump adviser Jason Miller tweets out Trump video “Avoiding World War III” with the caption: “The JV gang took the bait and is missing the point here. Only President Trump knows this about AVOIDING World War III, not pushing us headfirst into it!”

From Texas: Haley and Ramaswamy going back and forth here is a fight over a relatively small amount of Texans. Both candidates don’t have a major presence in Texas.

Last week, University of Houston and Texas Southern University: 58% of Texas 2024 GOP primary voters still intend to vote for Trump. Number two is DeSantis with 14% — according to Axios Houston.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Kristen Reynolds, 61, from Swanzey, New Hampshire, started the night thinking Ramaswamy was “funny and on point.”

Now, she says: “Vivek needs to stop attacking Nikki.”

There are a handful of possibilities, and while the timeline is unclear, there are some plausible paths forward, including congressional action, executive action and a push to sell the app.

Read more here.

Scott has long rejected the notion of banning TikTok, citing past attempts by the Trump administration that were shot down by the courts. He’s instead proposed requiring “country-of-origin” labeling on all apps and boosting parental controls.

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Loud boos and mutters of “Oh, Jesus” from within the debate hall as Ramaswamy takes a swipe at Nikki Haley’s daughter for using TikTok.

He’s played the heel well up until now, with the room at best divided over his more controversial comments. He lost the room there.

Haley shoots back, calling him “scum” and warning him not to go after her daughter (who is an adult and currently in the audience.)

In Texas, the kids like TikTok a lot more than their parents or grandparents, according to April polling on the issue.

The poll found 43% of Texans get their news from local television stations, according to UT-Austin’s Texas Politics Project. And 42% of Texans get their news from social media including TikTok; 52% of GOP voters 30 years old or younger have a positive view of TikTok.

According to a poll from February, 64% of Texans 18-29 used TikTok in the last month.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

On stage in Hileah, Florida, Trump seemingly talking about Ramaswamy: “A lot of people say that. Why are you running? He said I’m a younger version. It’s OK to say but we want the older version, right?”

Critics have alleged that TikTok is using its influence to push content that is pro-Palestinian and contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests. The claims about TikTok’s promotion of pro-Palestinian content are anecdotal, and they have been bubbling up on the social media platform X, in statements to the media and on conservative media outlets such as Fox News

TikTok said the allegations of bias are baseless. 

Ultimately the perceived performance of pro-Palestinian content on the platform depends on how you parse TikTok’s data. Historic trends internationally show more interest in the popular hashtag #standwithpalestine than #standwithisrael. Looking at hashtag data only from the U.S. over the last 30 days, pro-Israel content has been performing at pace, if not better, than some popular pro-Palestinian content. 

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Read the full story here.

In the last 10 minutes, the Trump campaign has sent out three emails highlighting his record on immigration and his “plan to destroy the drug cartels.”

A Biden campaign official told me campaign folks are mostly watching Trump right now. The source said they are bored with the debate and watching Trump ramble about “the same insane things that got him voted out in 2020.”

During the commercial break, when candidates dispersed momentarily, DeSantis went to approach the edge of the stage and tripped/stumbled off the podium platform — catching himself before what honestly made me nervous could have been a face plant. He laughed it off before saying hello to his wife.

A question on TikTok comes as the popular video platform, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, has re-entered the crosshairs of politicians and national security officials 

TikTok has been the subject of scrutiny for years because of concerns that people in China may access the personal data of American users. Most recently, members of Congress and people in the tech industry have criticized TikTok because of pro-Palestinian content on the platform.

TikTok has fended off attempts at a ban. Federal judges blocked a proposed ban by then-President Donald Trump in 2020, and TikTok has been negotiating an agreement with the Biden administration to try to allay data privacy concerns. This week, the Treasury Department declined to comment on the status of those negotiations.

Chart: DeSantis has made the most attacks so far

At the 50-minute mark in the debate, DeSantis has made the most attacks.

Trump, on his own stage, said someone accused him of not having the courage to debate.

“Well, listen, I’m standing in front of tens of thousands of people right now and it’s on television. That’s a hell of a lot harder to do than a debate,” he said.

At the first break, Christie and Haley shared a quick smile while Ramaswamy shook DeSantis’ hand and the two briefly chatted.

During an exchange about how the candidates would handle responding to Muslim Americans afraid for their safety in the current environment, Christie said he was one of the only persons on stage who “actually had experience in dealing with this” and pointed to his dealings as governor of the “most ethnically diverse state.”

Following 9/11, Christie said: “I personally went from mosque to mosque in New Jersey and met with the leaders of those mosques and with the members of the mosques. And I said to law enforcement is on your side to protect you regardless of your religion.”

“We developed fabulous relationships with Muslim Americans all across the state of New Jersey,” he said.

It’s true that Christie was applauded by the Muslim-American community during the first several years of his time in office. In particular, he was praised for slamming the New York Police Department’s program that spied on Muslim communities. 

But years later, in 2015, during his first presidential run, Muslim American communities widely criticized him for saying he wouldn’t re-settle Syrian refugees in New Jersey or in the U.S.

Haley is clearly the most comfortable on these foreign policy topics than any of her competitors on stage. And if major donors are watching that are deciding between DeSantis and Haley as their preferred Trump alternative, this has likely been a very strong opening 45 minutes for Haley.

This is not to say DeSantis has done poorly, he hasn’t. He’s been much stronger tonight than at any of the previous debates. Haley simply has more experience debating these topics thanks specifically to her experience at the U.N.

And on the showmanship front, the attention-seeking shenanigans of Ramaswamy that Haley has gleefully swatted away have also helped.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.Shuran Huang for NBC News

Trump just referred to the debate for the first time on stage at his rally tonight:

“In the primary, we’re leading the field with an average of 61% for Trump, and you have about what seven or eight candidates left. I think they’re at a debate tonight. Nobody’s talking about it. Everybody’s watching.”

He added, “One more quote on the debate from Trump: “You know, the last debate was the lowest-rated debate in the history of politics. So therefore, do you think we did the right thing by not participating?”

In 2015, Hewitt’s questions about the nuclear triad famously tripped up candidate Trump, who clearly had no idea what Hewitt was referring to. Here, as he asks candidates about building up the Navy, both Scott and DeSantis similarly whiff when asked about specific types of ships, size of the Navy, or when they could be built and deployed.

Christie then tried to call them out for not answering.

DeSantis hits Haley on giving China land when she was governor in South Carolina, she raised her hand, likely to talk about DeSantis’ own entanglements with China. The two were duking it out on the issue as a prelude to the debate.

His attacks echo ads that his SuperPAC has been running attacking Haley for how she handled China as governor.

As Ramaswamy continuously goes after the RNC on stage and while on the trail, last month during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, NBC News asked Ramaswamy if he’d ever consider running as an independent candidate for president.

He answered with: “I’m in this to win and be our next president, and not even just to be the next president, but to reunite and re-galvanize this country. January 2033, is my destination. So the path that runs through there is winning the Republican nomination, and then winning the general election, which I expect to do.”

Also, Ramaswamy often says “I’m using the Republican Party as a vehicle because we live in a two party system.”

Natasha Korecki notes: Haley hits DeSantis for the first time when she called for the United States to suspend all regular trade relations with China unless it stops sending fentanyl — she says DeSantis has yet to do this.

But Sarah Dean notes: Haley has gone after DeSantis less than expected based on her campaign’s pre-debate memos previewing strategy. Instead, most of her attacks have been hits back at Vivek Ramaswamy going after her — leaving DeSantis largely unscathed so far.

China is another issue likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers are paying attention to. Our latest NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found that 50% of this group thinks that the issue of relations with China is “extremely important,” as they consider candidates.

Every debate the expectation has been DeSantis would attack or get attacked, but each time that doesn’t seem to materialize. The campaign has claimed it’s a good thing — he’s being “presidential” and “above the fray.” But critics argue it makes him seem like less of a threat.

Natasha Korecki observes: We’re about five questions in and the most fire right now is between Ramaswamy and Haley and not Haley and DeSantis as expected.

Garrett Haake responds: The coming DeSantis pile-on, now three debates in and yet to materialize

DeSantis appeared to pit a rise in antisemitism against a rise in Islamophobia, suggesting that one should be taken more seriously by the federal government than the other.

Biden, he said, “is launching an initiative to combat so-called Islamophobia.”

“No, it’s the antisemitism. It’s spiraling out of control. That is what we have to confront,” DeSantis said.

The truth is that both Islamophobic incidents and antisemitic incidents have increased in the weeks since the Hamas attack on Israel.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said last week it received 774 reports of bias incidents and requests for help from Muslims across the U.S. from Oct. 7 to Oct. 24, a 182% jump from the average 16-day period in 2022.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League said on Oct. 24 that there had been a “nearly 400% increase in preliminary antisemitic incidents reported year-over-year.”

Haley says antisemitism is as bad as racism — worth noting that the Southern Poverty Law Center says antisemitism is “a form of racism in itself.” 

Lauren Mayk covers politics for NBC 10 (WCAU), reporting throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts the Battleground Politics podcast.


Maura Barrett observes: Another borderline eye roll & glance toward Christie from Haley when Ramaswamy claimed “other people couldn’t name” the provinces of Ukraine that Russia has occupied

Garrett Haake responds: It’s not hard to imagine Christie as a Haley surrogate somewhere down the line. They’re aligned on foreign policy in both style and substance.

Despite his best efforts, Nikki Haley may have just had another moment by saying Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are salivating over the thought of Ramaswamy becoming president.

Ramaswamy only seems to help Haley as a loose cannon foil to her seriousness.

According to a September poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, 36% of Texas voters believe the country is doing too much in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That has gone up from 15% in 2022. 

Meanwhile, 21% say the U.S. is doing too little. Thirty percent say the country is responding appropriately.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

Ramaswamy is like having a drunk uncle show up in the middle of a sober debate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.Shuran Huang for NBC News

Fact check: Did DeSantis evacuate Americans out of Israel?

“Biden’s neglect has been atrocious,” DeSantis said. “He left them stranded, they couldn’t get flights out. So I scrambled resources in Florida. I sent planes over to Israel and I brought back over 700 people to safety.”

This is half true. Following the attack, flights from Israel to the U.S. were scarce, with prices reportedly as high as $25,000, and some Americans in Israel at the time posted on social media that they were stranded.

Image: Ron DeSantis
Ron DeSantis at the Republican debate on Weds.Shuran Huang for NBC News

On Oct. 12, DeSantis signed an executive order that allowed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to pay for Americans in Israel to fly back to the U.S. The flights, however, were organized by Tampa-based nonprofit Project Dynamo, which specializes in rescuing Americans in distress, and DeSantis’ primary role was to fund the flights. Nearly 700 people, not more than 700 people, were evacuated, according to the most recent release from the governor’s office.

And lastly, since the war began, the U.S. government has reportedly evacuated 1,500 Americans from Israel.

This is a common talking point for Ramaswamy when it comes to Ukraine. He often says just because Putin is bad doesn’t mean Ukraine is good.

But Ramaswamy saying that other candidates are coming around to his thinking on Ukraine and tiptoeing around funding for it, but this seems unlikely for Haley who has been a hawk on the situation.

Scott has called on Biden to have a “single-minded” focus on Israel and opposed his efforts to tie Israel funding to aid for Ukraine. He was a co-sponsor of the Israel Supplemental Appropriations Act, which would provide $14.3 billion in aid to Israel.

Chart: Ramaswamy’s the only one attacking the on-stage candidates

Thirty minutes into the third debate and most of the field is focusing their attacks on Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Follow along with the NBC News attack tracker here.

Just browsing social media, it seems the only line in this debate that’s taken off so far is Ramaswamy blasting “Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels.” He aimed that comment at both Haley and DeSantis.

With all this talk on national security and American funding for democratic allies fighting wars, Texas has a unique connection. Since 2001, many key decisions laying the groundwork for geopolitics in the Middle East were made by then-President and Texan George W. Bush — who sent American troops into a Mideast war. Expert on geopolitics, Ian Bremmer, argued the current crisis is partly a result of American power receding from the Middle East and pivoting toward Asia.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

Nikki Haley is talking about college campuses as mom of a college student in Pennsylvania. She announced her son’s choice of Villanova in the Philly burbs here in 2020.

Lauren Mayk covers politics for NBC 10 (WCAU), reporting throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts the Battleground Politics podcast.

Nikki Haley got a slightly different question on antisemitism, but she has also proposed going after universities by pulling their tax-exempt status if they allow hate speech on campus. She wants to change the official federal definition of antisemitism to include denying Israel’s right to exist.

I asked DeSantis at a campaign stop last month in South Carolina what his message would be to the family of Wadea Al-Fayoume in the days after his murder in Illinois.

He said the attack on the young boy was “barbaric” and “totally inappropriate,” but also stressed that “Jewish people have been under attack in many places in this country for a long time.”

For all the handwringing about Biden losing the support of Muslim and Arab-Americans due to his near-total embrace of Israel at this moment, some of the rhetoric here is telling in how unlikely it might be for those voters to find comfort in the GOP. DeSantis blasting “so-called Islamophobia” is a case in point.

Jacksonville debate watchers are divided between Trump and DeSantis

NBC News is viewing the debate at a GOP watch party at a bar in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

In this Jacksonville room full of roughly 70 Republican Florida voters, there are two names you hear most when asking about their 2024 pick: Trump or Desantis.

Most of the room has told me they regret the uniquely Floridian Republican problem of having to choose between a beloved governor and the former president, and wish they hadn’t overlapped in a single presidential race.

Die-hard Trump voter Trina Carver of Jacksonville wasn’t a fan of DeSantis attacking Trump tonight. “The lack of loyalty bothers me,” said Carver. “But Trump doesn’t need to be on stage. The people who are for Trump are for Trump.”

Trina Carver
Trina Carver.Marissa Parra / NBC News

Scott has introduced legislation that would rescind federal funding for colleges and universities “that peddle antisemitism or authorize, fund or facilitate events that promote violent antisemitism,” and often touts it on the campaign trail.

The Biden campaign has already started seizing on Republicans talking about election losses last night, including tweeting a video of Vivek saying “we’ve become a party of losers.”

DeSantis has used variations of the “I’m canceling your visa and I’m sending you home” line multiple times on the trail in Iowa when talking about antisemitism on college campuses lately.

Haley has been talking about using her heels as ammunition for a long time. She even mentioned them in her campaign launch video: “I don’t put up with bullies, and when you kick back, it hurts them more when you’re wearing heels” 

Context for DeSantis’ comments about Cooper Union:

Jewish students at Cooper Union College in New York City said they feared violence by pro-Palestinian protesters and took refuge from demonstrators in a school library. New York police said protesters banged on the doors and glass windows of the building but contradicted the claim that the students were locked inside.

Texas has the third amount of active duty armed forces members, roughly around 115,000. Only California and Virginia have more.  

So, if we’re talking about more troops overseas — many of them will be Texans. Also, it’s a reason why there was a decent amount of support during the 2008 presidential election for anti-war candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

DeSantis has said that U.S. troops stationed in Syria and Iraq are “there in insufficient numbers to probably make a huge impact. But they’re there in sufficient numbers to be an inviting target,” and that “it’s not clear what their mission is.”

Ramaswamy has long said that “the right answer to bad speech or bad opinions, isn’t censorship, it’s more speech.”

On the trail recently, he has referenced the Brooklyn Bridge protests but has said he believes they don’t even know what is going on in the Middle East. He has defended the protesters as an act of free speech.

He often says on the trail: “And if you repeatedly … tell people they cannot speak, that is when they scream. If you repeatedly tell people they cannot scream, that is when they tear things down.”

When Ramaswamy named dropped his first book, Haley appears to roll her eyes and turns her head to share a knowing glance with Christie.

Context for Ramaswamy pivoting from an Israel question to attack his rivals: He has been getting hammered by his GOP opponents over being insufficiently supportive of Israel. So he took time out from answering a question about an issue that’s caused trouble for him to get to his own attacks before someone hits him first.

Speaking of high heels and Haley’s response — reminds me of a quote from Ann Richards, who later became governor of Texas, at the 1988 DNC Convention: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

In the first 15 minutes, Ramaswamy has gone after three different women: Ronna McDaniel, moderator Welker and opponent Haley.

And he keeps taking digs at the heels, including trying to jab — it seems — at DeSantis for wearing boots with heels. Rumors and memes abound about DeSantis’ allegedly wearing lifts in his boots to make him taller. And those make the boots’ toes curl up.

Nikki Haley is making a career out of punchy one-liner retorts to Vivek Ramaswamy’s attacks

“They’re 5-inch heels, and I don’t wear them unless I can run in them,” she said. “They’re not fashion — they’re ammunition.”

Nikki Haley making clear she’s not going to just take the dig without giving it back.

Some candidates are tapping into Republican frustration over Tuesday’s election losses.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans lost a contest for an open Supreme Court seat that would have narrowed the margin in a Democratic-controlled court to one justice, plus they lost other court and county-level races.

The GOP frustration is going public in some cases: In a social media post earlier today, a former Pennsylvania Republican congressional candidate who co-founded a group called Win Again that embraces mail-in voting called the results for Republican candidates a “disaster” and said they demonstrate the complete failure of the leadership and institutions that conservative voters, activists and donors rely on.

Lauren Mayk covers politics for NBC 10 (WCAU), reporting throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts the Battleground Politics podcast.

Scott has been accusing both Obama and Biden of creating a market for American hostages on the campaign trail. He’s said Biden has blood on his hands due to the $6 billion Iran hostage deal, but it’s the first time he’s levied the attack toward Obama.

In the first debate it took 10 minutes for a candidate to attack another candidate on the stage. In the second debate it took more than 20 minutes. We’re more than 16 minutes into the third debate and Ramaswamy just took a swing at Haley over her business ties, the first attack on another on-stage candidate in the third debate. Follow along with the NBC News attack tracker.

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Jonathan Liptak from Keene voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but does not like that he is not participating in the debates. He has not decided whom to support yet.

Ramaswamy, he said, “said what we are all thinking with regards to the mainstream media and the chairwoman of the RNC.”

In Texas, there’s a relatively small number of Jewish people — around 1%, according to PEW Research. Many Texans view Israel through either a national security lens or through the evangelical Christian end-times prophecy beliefs. 

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

Right out of the gate, both DeSantis and Ramaswamy blasted their fellow Republicans for having lost so many contests on Tuesday night.

But they didn’t mention their party’s struggles with abortion rights — which was, perhaps, the biggest factor in Republicans losing those races.

“What we saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing,” DeSantis said.

Ramaswamy called the GOP a “party of losers” that got “trounced last night.”

Republican candidates suffered losses Tuesday night in the Virginia legislative elections and the Kentucky gubernatorial race. In those races, Democrats put abortion rights front and center. Meanwhile, a ballot measure in Ohio enshrining abortion rights in the state’s constitution also passed.

The results were just the latest examples in a still unbroken winning streak by candidates and ballot measures supporting abortion rights in the nearly 17 months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and further highlighted Republican struggles on the issue. 

Ramaswamy here is separating himself from DeSantis and Haley on Israel, saying he would concentrate on the U.S. southern border. He also hit Haley hard as he has been in the last several weeks on Israel, saying, “Do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels?”

That DeSantis anecdote about the young evacuee from Israel is a staple on the campaign trail.

DeSantis has flexed his official government position to support his campaign message since the war broke out — tightening sanctions on Iran with the Florida legislature, evacuating Americans on Florida Division of Emergency Management flights and sending medical aid and supplies to Israel.

As the candidates answer questions about the Israel-Hamas war, likely Iowa caucusgoers are paying attention. In our latest NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll, 57% of likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers said that the Israel-Hamas war is “extremely important” to them as they evaluate candidates.

Ramaswamy has long spread the conspiracy theory that we’re only in Ukraine because of Hunter Biden.

DeSantis has been working hard the last several weeks to take action on Israel from Florida and he makes sure to get that across just now.

Tim Scott leans into faith and religion in his answer on moving the GOP away from Trump. According to Pew Research, 77% of adults in Texas are Christian. The largest subset of Christians is Evangelical Protestants — with 31% of the state.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

Ramaswamy posted on X just now regarding his debate opening answer, calling on GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel to resign: “I’m sick and tired of this Republican Establishment that has made us a party of losers. Where is the accountability for years of losing: 2018, 2020, 2022 and now last night? I’m calling on @GOPChairwoman to resign tonight.”

Christie supporter: Christie called out Trump ‘before it was cool’

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Jacob Favolise, 20, is a Republican from Keene, supporting Gov. Chris Christie. His immediate reaction to the first debate question: “Just remember who was calling out Donald Trump before it was cool: Chris Christie”

The best thing the first question did was separate the candidates between those who are running to be the GOP nominee and those who are running for their own personal reasons or gain.

In her first response of the night, Haley mentioned needing an accountant in the White House, an appeal that might resonate especially well with Iowa Republicans, who say the economy is a top voting issue ahead of the Jan. 15 caucus, according to our most recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.

Ramaswamy wasn’t joking about being “unconstrained.” He immediately picked two targets that many GOP voters love to jeer: RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and the media and decided to take his time to blast them rather than explain why he should be the nominee.

It’s red meat for his online supporters.

Trump is by far the favorite of Texas Republicans so far

From an early September poll: 41% of Texas voters have a favorable view of Trump, while 51% had an unfavorable view. 79% of Republicans have a FAVORABLE view.

Trump is by far the choice of Texas Republicans so far. Their views on the recent criminal charges against him have not changed that. 85% of Texas GOP voters believe the charges against Trump are “mostly based on politics,” as opposed to “mostly based on the facts.” Only 5% of Texas GOP voters don’t know or are unsure.

Phil Prazan is the political reporter and anchor of the public affairs show Lone Star Politics on NBC DFW/KXAS.

Interesting to see Ramaswamy is in a fighting mood tonight — but so far not looking to pick a fight with his opponents like he did at the first debate. In the second debate he tried on the “uniter” brand. Now he’s trying out fighting with the moderators.

I am sitting in the audience with a clear view of Ronna McDaniels — when Ramaswamy called her out and offered to yield his spot on the stage to take ownership for Republican losses, she started to get out of her chair, clearly frustrated with the accusation, before she sat back down. She remains in her seat now.

Ramaswamy’s campaign warned he would try to start trouble today: “Vivek speaks the truth. If he’s going to make people on the debate stage uncomfortable and they’re gonna get mad and maybe we’ll see some mics cut off,” Tricia McLaughlin told me today.

“But he’s ready and he’s not going hold back. He’s gonna be unconstrained.”

Burgum fan says he’s considering Haley

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of caucusgoers at a bar in Altoona, Iowa. The debate watch party is being hosted by Americans For Prosperity.

Joe Pendergast, 69, was a Gov. Doug Burgum fan who’s bummed he didn’t make the stage tonight. “I really wanted him to be able to express himself unlike the last debate where they didn’t let him even talk,” Pendergast said of the North Dakota governor.

Since Burgum didn’t qualify for the debate, Pendergast is taking a fresh look at Haley. Pendergast, who’s now retired, says he’s been impressed by Haley’s debate performances thus far and is expecting her to come out swinging again tonight.

“She’s not gonna take any prisoners and I think she’s gonna be very aggressive tonight,” predicted Pendergast.

Joe Pendergast.
Joe Pendergast.Alexander Tabet / NBC News

Vivek Ramaswamy goes after the Republican National Committee in his first answer. On the trail, he has said he’s using the Republican Party as a “vehicle” to win the nomination. He has had a longstanding beef with RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel.

Meanwhile, Trump is down the road in a Republican stronghold

While five of the six candidates who met the debate criteria are on the debate stage, the front-runner is missing but is also here in South Florida, in the city of Hialeah, about 15 minutes from the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami where the debate is being held.

Hialeah is a Republican stronghold that’s over 95% Hispanic and where Trump has ample support. This is where Trump had his best performance in Miami-Dade County in the 2020 election

Jackie Nespral is the main anchor for NBC6 in Miami and the host of Impact, a politics and current events show.

Haley, too, makes clear Trump won’t be spared and goes after Trump backing off of Ukraine support: “Now he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again.”

DeSantis lays down the marker, making it clear he’s going to go after Trump and this is some of the toughest talk we’ve heard from him on Trump in a debate.

“What we saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing.”

DeSantis was unhappy with the long wait time to get a question at the last debate. He gets the first question out of the gate this time around.

DeSantis attacks Trump in his first answer. He uses messaging he’s been workshopping on the trail about what he calls Trump’s broken promises.

Haley and DeSantis are expected to tangle it up tonight, and they’re standing right next to each other for an added layer of drama.

The debate is beginning and the candidates are already on stage.

Tracking the candidate attacks

Ramaswamy has been the most-targeted candidate in the previous two debates. NBC News is tracking whether the businessman continues to be the focus of attacks in tonight’s debate. Follow along with the attack tracker here.

Candidates scribble notes before debate begins

Candidates are not allowed to bring notes on stage per the debate rules. Moments after the group photos were taken, all of the candidates moved to their lecterns and immediately began scribbling down notes, which is allowed.

Haley supporter says ‘this moment was made for’ her

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Jerry Sickels is planning to support Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, this election cycle. He said he is supporting Haley because “there is nobody that has the across-the-board experience that she has. And by that, I mean legislative experience, executive experiences as twice elected governor, and she was probably the most powerful U.N. ambassador we’ve had since Jeane Kirkpatrick. So there’s no moment that’s too big for her.”

Sickels said, “The international scene is exploding around us,” adding that “it’s almost like this moment was made for [Haley].” He hopes she will “show the American people who she is” on the debate stage tonight.

Image: Jerry Sickels.
Jerry Sickels.Emma Barnett / NBC News

N.H. Republican town official wants to hear candidates’ pitches

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Leroy Watson is the town Republican chairman in Walpole, N.H.

He says, “I have told my members that I’m going to stay neutral and try and facilitate getting information and signs and things like that to any of our members who want to display their preferences in our town.”

But personally, he says he is very impressed with both Haley and Scott.

“They have I think shown, from different perspectives, some of them are creative aspects of campaigning, at least here in New Hampshire,” he said.

During tonight’s debate, he says he wants candidates to clearly articulate their views, explain why they want to be president and why people should vote for them.

Trump backer at Iowa watch party says nothing will change his vote

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of caucusgoers at a bar in Altoona, Iowa. The debate watch party is being hosted by Americans For Prosperity.

Gary Leffler, 62, is a die-hard Trump supporter who says nothing that happens tonight in Miami will stop him from caucusing for the former president.

“Name me one thing that they say that they’re going to do tonight that Trump hasn’t already done,” said Leffler who works as a construction consultant. “He’s a proven leader.”

Gary Leffler.
Gary Leffler.Alexander Tebet / NBC News

Leffler ran for a seat in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District in 2022 but lost in the Republican primary.

Vivek Ramaswamy fans in Keene, N.H., prep for debate

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of voters at a restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire. The debate watch party is being hosted by the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Toby Menard and Annette Menard are planning to vote for Vivek Ramaswamy in the primary and are volunteering for his campaign.

“We’ve met him several times, we’ve actually gone and seen most of the candidates and he just seems really authentic. And we liked a lot of his policies and his 10 truths,” Toby Menard said.

Annette and Toby Menard
Annette and Toby Menard Emma Barnett / NBC News

Annette Menard said during tonight’s debate she wants “to see Vivek actually getting a chance to speak.”

She later added, “It seems like at the last two debates, he gets cut off right away and when people call him out on having a difference of opinion on policies, he doesn’t always get an opportunity to respond.”

5 candidates qualify for the Miami GOP debate, with Doug Burgum missing out

Five candidates will be on the stage Wednesday night at the third GOP presidential debate in Miami, but North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum fell short after having made the first two Republican debates this year.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina all qualified for the Wednesday debate, the Republican National Committee said in a statement. Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is skipping another debate.

The five qualified candidates all met the RNC’s criteria, including having accrued at least 70,000 unique donors and meeting a minimum polling requirement (at least 4% in two national polls or one national and one early-state poll that meet RNC requirements). The candidates also had to sign pledges, including one to support the Republican Party’s eventual nominee.

Read the full story.

Ramaswamy friend predicts candidate will call for a one-state solution on the debate stage

Rabbi Shmully Hecht, a close friend of Ramaswamy’s, predicted the GOP presidential hopeful will call for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict on the debate stage tonight in Miami.

“I assume Vivek is going to propose a one-state solution,” said Hecht. “I think that’s where he thinks peace comes from in the Middle East,” added the rabbi.

Hecht and Ramaswamy first formed their friendship on the grounds of Yale University while a young Ramaswamy was earning his law degree. Ramaswamy joined Shabtai, Hecht’s Jewish leadership society for students on campus, and the two have remained close ever since. Hecht says Ramaswamy was the first Hindu to join Shabtai and one of the first non-Jews. 

Ramaswamy has kept little secret of his skepticism toward a two-state solution in the Middle East, which has long been the United States’ status-quo policy toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit in Las Vegas in late October, Ramaswamy said, “If Israel wants to at long last abandon the myth of a two-state solution, Israel should go ahead and abandon a two-state solution.” The remark was met with rapturous applause.

Iowa couple ranks abortion and military as highest priorities

NBC News is watching the debate with dozens of caucusgoers at a bar in Altoona, Iowa. The debate watch party is being hosted by Americans For Prosperity.

Donna and Larry Troxel are leaning toward caucusing for former President Donald Trump but could be convinced otherwise depending on tonight’s debate performance.

Larry, a semi-retired Lutheran pastor, says he wants to hear from a candidate who aligns with his views on abortion. “I am 100% pro-life, and that person has got to be in line with that position,” said Larry.

Donna, a retired nurse, wants a candidate who can keep her son, who serves in the National Guard and is transferring to the Air Force Reserve, safe. “It was very significant to me that under President Trump, nobody was deployed,” she said.

Donna and Larry Troxel.
Donna and Larry Troxel Alexander Tabet / NBC News

What do the candidates eat pre-debate?

“If I’m picking the restaurant after the debate, that’s bad,” Christie said.

RNC Chair McDaniel: Republicans ‘have to talk about’ abortion

Fresh off an Election Day during which Democrats extended their post-Roe winning streak in races where abortion rights were a central theme, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said today that GOP candidates “have to talk about” abortion.

“Our candidates have to talk about this. We can’t put our head in the sand. We can’t let Democrats define us,” McDaniel said on NBC’s “TODAY.”

McDaniel said Republicans “have to talk about this issue in a compassionate way” and that both political parties “have to come to a consensus” on the issue.

She suggested that position could be a ban on abortions “around 15 weeks” with several exceptions, including ones for “life-saving care,” but said it would be “up to the candidates to decide” whether such a policy would come at the state level or the national level.

However, voters in Virginia rejected that exact proposal — a 15-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the woman — yesterday when they awarded Democrats with control of both chambers of the Legislature, after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin put the policy at the center of his efforts to help his party gain control of the state government.

Strategists, aware of GOP struggles on abortion, had widely viewed that proposal as a test message for Republicans looking for a moderate reproductive rights policy and message to run on in the post-Roe landscape.

What does it take to put on a debate? Here are the stats

What does it take to put on the debate? The setup by the numbers includes 300 crew members and 150 moving lights and 12 cameras.

Biden campaign launches new Spanish language ads in Florida

The Biden campaign launched two new Spanish language ads in South Florida today, just as GOP candidates prepare to take to the stage.

One ad focuses on the economy, and the other targets Venezuelan Americans, focusing on people who fled Maduro’s rule.

“These ads will remind Hispanic voters in South Florida who really has their back,” said campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez. “It’s President Biden fighting dictatorial regimes, protecting our democracy at home, and meaningfully investing in our community’s economic well-being.”

Tim Scott invites Jewish students to attend debate, citing rise in antisemitism on college campuses

Tim Scott will host more than 20 Jewish students from the University of South Carolina, the University of Miami and a local South Florida high school to attend the debate tonight, the campaign said.

Scott characterized the invitations as a response to what he described as an increase in antisemitism on college campuses.

“As hate and antisemitism proliferate on college campuses across our country, it is more important than ever to educate the minds of our next generation with thoughtful debate and discussion,” Scott said. “I look forward to sharing my optimistic vision for our country with these students and all Americans.”

Scott has made a concerted effort to frame himself as the most pro-Israel candidate on the stage and has introduced or co-sponsored six pieces of legislation in response to Hamas’ attack on Israel, including a resolution yesterday that would reaffirm economic ties between the U.S. and Israel.

DeSantis campaign dismisses chances that an abortion ban could pass Congress

In the wake of yesterday’s election results showing the continued strength of the pro-abortion rights movement, DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier dismissed the idea that a federal ban could even pass Congress, a sign that Republicans are trying to downplay the issue.

“He’s a pro-life governor. He’s not going to change that viewpoint based on whatever the, you know preferred narrative might be,” Uthmeier said.

“In the wake of the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court kicked a lot of that responsibility, that power, back to the states. Gov. DeSantis recognizes that. And the idea that Congress is going to send some 15-week or 12-week bill to the Oval Office — that’s just not reality.”

DeSantis signed a bill to ban abortion after 6 weeks, which is only two weeks after women can get a positive pregnancy result on most at-home tests and when many women don’t yet know they are pregnant.

Trump says he’s open to Tucker Carlson as his VP pick

In an interview on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” Trump said he would be open to having former Fox News host Tucker Carlson be his running mate.

“I like Tucker a lot — I guess I would,” Trump said when asked if Carlson would be on his list of potential VPs. “I think I’d say I would because he’s got great common sense.”

He also said he’d be open to considering one of his five rivals who will be at the debate: “I think it’s possible. Look, some of them I like a lot.”

Biden campaign hits Trump on abortion stance ahead of debate

The Biden campaign released a statement bashing Trump’s anti-abortion views just hours before Republican candidates take to the debate stage. Trump will not attend, though he is considered the GOP front-runner.

“As he’s said many times, no one did more to pave the way for abortion bans than Trump, and he was proud and honored to do it,” said spokesperson Ammar Moussa in the statement given first to NBC News. “Republicans across the country are tied to Trump’s losing MAGA agenda of ripping away Americans’ fundamental freedoms and voters will hold Donald Trump and his MAGA buddies accountable next November.”

The statement pointed to numerous times when Trump doubled down on the claim that he is “the one that got rid of Roe v. Wade.”

“After 50 years of failure, with nobody coming even close, I was able to kill Roe v. Wade, much to the ‘shock’ of everyone,” read one example of a Trump social media post referred to in the statement.

The statement comes after pro-abortion rights activists garnered a high profile win in Ohio on Tuesday with a vote to enshrine abortion protections in the state’s constitution.

Trump’s refusal to debate has done him no harm

On Aug. 23, the day of the first Republican presidential debate, the average of polls in the GOP race, per Real Clear Politics, stood at:

Trump 55.4%

DeSantis 14.3%

Ramaswamy 7.2%

Pence 4.0%

Haley 3.2%

Scott 3.1%

Christie 3.0%

Burgum 0.6%

That night, all of those candidates except for Trump took the stage in Milwaukee, with a television audience of 12.8 million tuning in. Trump’s refusal to participate, his rivals and critics within the party predicted, would lead voters to believe he was taking them for granted and cost him support. It was also argued that in ceding such a massive spotlight to his opponents, Trump was giving them a priceless opportunity to define themselves and differentiate themselves from him on their terms. Certainly, this contention went, Trump would realize quickly he had erred in boycotting the debate and feel compelled to participate in the remainder of them.

That was two-and-a-half months ago. After the debate that night, there was a second in late September that Trump also refused to join. And now tonight comes the third debate, and once again — to no one’s surprise this time — Trump will be a no-show. And what does the poll average look like this morning?

Trump 58.3%

DeSantis 14.6%

Haley 9.4%

Ramaswamy 4.4%

Christie 2.6%

Scott 2.3%      

Burgum 0.8%

Simply put, there is no evidence that Trump’s refusal to debate has cost him at all. His support is up since the first debate, and moreover, the share of his supporters who say they are locked in and definitely plan to vote for isn’t just higher than anyone else in the field — it’s higher than any modern GOP candidate we’ve seen.

Of all of his opponents, just one — Haley — has demonstrably gained any traction since the debates began, tripling her national support (though she still sits just below 10 percent in the average). And Haley’s mini-surge comes with a catch: She’s performing best with voters who are outside the core Republican universe; that is, independents and Republicans who have a negative view toward Trump. Tapping into these groups will only get you so far in a GOP primary, though. To advance further and have any chance of making it a game with Trump, she will need to appeal to Trump-friendly Republicans and even win over some who now saw they are with Trump.

Tonight’s debate will feature five candidates — DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy, Christie and Scott — whose combined support adds up to 33.3% in the polls average — exactly 25 points lower than Trump’s number. The lesson of debate season so far seems to be that Trump’s rivals need him on stage with them badly, while Trump actually risks more by showing up than staying home. In other words, the pressure is on each candidate tonight to find some way to alter this equation and to convince Trump that he needs to be in the next one.

If they can somehow do that, then they’ll have a chance for the kind of direct confrontation with him that they’ve all been denied so far. Of course, past GOP candidates who’ve had direct confrontations with Trump haven’t fared very well. But given the dire state of their polling, just getting a shot at him face-to-face — even with the risk that it will go poorly — would be a major victory for the five Republicans who will be at the Miami debate tonight. 

GOP primary voters want to hear candidates talk about abortion

Rob Lotito, an independent from Swanzey, N.H., argues abortion is an important issue for candidates to address, especially after yesterday’s Republican election losses.

“The abortion issue is a lot bigger than people think it is,” Lotito, 57, said. “There are a lot of people voting on the abortion issue from the Democrat side of a want to have abortion available to people. Why it’s bigger than the economy? I don’t know.”

“It’s a lot of noise right now,” he said of the GOP primary field. “I think they’re going after Trump too much. I think instead of providing what they do and what they can do best, they’re allowing Trump to steal the scene and he’s not even there.”

“I think they got to make their own case and stand on their own two feet and talk about what they would do and how they would do it and accomplish that,” Lotito added.

Beverly Boggess also wants the candidates to focus on themselves and the issues.

“I don’t like them attacking one another, I just like to hear what your views are,” Boggess told NBC News at a diner in Londonderry. “What they feel like is happening at the border, right now the war in Israel, the Ukraine war, homelessness. There is so much in our country that needs to be fixed.”

For an independent in New Hampshire, the economy is issue No. 1

Ahead of tonight’s debate, the economy is top of mind for Joel Hannon from Troy, N.H.

“Why are we giving money away to countries like Ukraine? That’s just a waste of money,” Hannon, 67, told NBC News. “Billions and billions and billions of our dollars are going out of this country to somebody that is going to lose the war anyways.”

Hannon, a Trump supporter, thinks the GOP primary is a “farce” due to Trump’s domination of the field.

“I don’t think he’s afraid of anybody,” he said of the former president. “There’s no reason to be afraid because none of them could do what he can do and what he has done.”

Fatalism creeps in around DeSantis

In the shadow of polls showing DeSantis hasn’t cut into former Trump’s lead at the national level or in early state contests, there is a sense of growing fatalism around the Florida governor.

“It feels like in July I’ll be wearing a f—— MAGA hat,” said one DeSantis supporter who was in Miami to attend Wednesday night’s debate and spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank. “It seems inevitable.”

Key takeaways from last night’s elections: Democrats show strength beyond Biden

Tuesday’s off-year elections provided a respite for nervous Democrats who have started to question whether President Joe Biden can lift the party to victory in next fall’s presidential election.

Democrats won critical races in Virginia and Pennsylvania — states seen as barometers for the 2024 vote — as well as in Kentucky, where the governor won by a wider margin in his re-election bid than in his first go-round, beating a rival backed by former President Donald Trump.

Elections on Tuesday put many hot-button national issues to the test — including abortion, crime, election administration and, yes, even the impact of the war in Israel.

Read takeaways from Tuesday.

Vivek Ramaswamy links opponents to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in negative TV ad

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy is criticizing former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a new TV ad — and he’s linking them to a past Republican presidential ticket to do it.

Ramaswamy doesn’t mention Haley and DeSantis by name in the ad, which is running in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of today’s GOP debate.

But Ramaswamy does stand in front of a screen flashing images of Haley and DeSantis alongside former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney while he criticizes “corrupt politicians” and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Corrupt politicians spent trillions, killed millions and made billions for themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’re leading us into World War III,” Ramaswamy says in the ad.

“As your next president, my sole duty is to you, the citizens of our nation. Not another one,” Ramaswamy adds.

No need for an extra podium at the debate

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said today that he’s “not going anywhere” and remains focused on the state, indicating that he will not be a candidate in the 2024 presidential election.

One recent point of contention between the GOP candidates: Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military promotions

Sen. Tommy Tuberville has been blocking high-ranking military promotions in response to the Pentagon’s policy allowing members of the military time off and reimbursement for travel related to getting an abortion. The Alabama Republican senator’s tactics divided several candidates in the GOP field leading up to today’s debate.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has said she thinks the Pentagon policy is wrong — but so is Tuberville’s approach. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also criticized Tuberville.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott have sided with Tuberville in the matter.

Read more about the divide here.

DeSantis campaign manager says he can help GOP ‘win’ after party suffered ‘sweeping loss’ last night

James Uthmeier, DeSantis’ presidential campaign manager, called yesterday’s election a “sweeping loss” for Republicans, comparing it to the 2022 midterm elections that did not result in a red wave despite predictions.

He also pointed to DeSantis’ wide-margin win in the last governor’s race in Florida to argue that he’s the candidate who can “win” for the party.

“Last night was a sweeping loss for republicans. It was eerily similar to last November, when the anticipated ‘red wave’ never came,” Uthmeier tweeted this morning. “But @RonDeSantis won by 20 points and turned the swing state of Florida solid red. We need a new leader that can win again for America.”

DeSantis, while on the campaign trial, has often pointed to his electoral success in Florida against the national trend in 2022 as an outcome of his leadership in the state. Expect to hear more about the dynamic Uthmeier highlighted in his tweet on the debate stage tonight.

One of DeSantis’ signature pledges on the campaign trail is he’d be able to bring down-ballot Republicans across the finish line — unlike Trump, who the governor says cannot even win another general election. 

DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin shared a similar post on X, writing that the governor’s 20-point win defied national trends and built a sustainable coalition in the state to win. 

Another trend from the election to keep in mind, however, is that the issue of abortion mobilized voters in Democrats’ favor again last night. DeSantis has signed two abortion restrictions into law in Florida as governor: a 15-week ban in 2022, and an even more restrictive six-week ban this year, about a month before he announced his presidential bid.

Biden campaign plasters Miami with ‘Dark Brandon’ meme ahead of Republican debate

The Biden-Harris campaign is putting up 1,000 signs featuring the “Dark Brandon” meme around the venue for the GOP presidential debate in Miami today, it said.

The meme is an online image of President Joe Biden with red laser eyes, meant to portray the president as powerful. The name stems from the Republican rallying cry, “Let’s Go Brandon,” which is a euphemism for an expletive against Biden. But White House staffers began embracing the “Dark Brandon” meme last summer, and the president’s re-election campaign has used it as an icon, too.

Joe Biden's campaign placed "Dark Brandon" signs outside the site of the GOP presidential debate in Miami today.
Joe Biden’s campaign placed “Dark Brandon” signs outside the site of the GOP presidential debate in Miami today.Sarah Dean / NBC News

A lot of the campaign’s merchandise features the imagery, and it is also the profile image on the Biden account on Truth Social, the social media platform started by former President Donald Trump.

Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz echoed Biden’s internet alter ego in a statement: “To Republicans running to strip away abortion rights, gut social security and Medicare, and undermine our democracy: You better watch out, Jack.”

Republican Jewish Coalition partnership

While NBC News is hosting tonight’s debate, the RNC selected the Salem Radio Network and the Republican Jewish Coalition as debate partners.

Hugh Hewitt, host of “The Hugh Hewitt Show” on Salem Radio Network, will join NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt and “Meet the Press” moderator Kristen Welker as moderators of the debate.

The Republican Jewish Coalition will also participate in the debate, with a couple of taped questions via video.

Republicans fail to take power in Virginia Legislature

Virginia voters have rejected Republican efforts to take full control of the state’s government, keeping Democrats in power in the Legislature as a counterweight to GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin and conservative policy proposals that include a 15-week abortion ban.

Democrats kept their majority in the state Senate and flipped the state House, The Associated Press projected.

Youngkin spent much of the summer and fall campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates across Virginia, and his PAC, Spirit of Virginia, poured millions of dollars into key races. The group also launched an early-voting program that led to increased early turnout among Virginia Republicans, according to data released by the State Board of Elections.

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Election results point to major GOP liability on abortion heading into 2024

Abortion rights keep winning and winning at the ballot box — and yesterday, winning some more.

Almost 17 months after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the hot streak enjoyed by candidates and ballot measures backing abortion rights continued in a collection of states in very different places across the political spectrum.

In Ohio, the state constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights won by double digits, a year after Republicans swept the statewide offices that were up in the midterm elections. In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won re-election after having made support for abortion rights a key message of his campaign in the deep red state. And in Virginia, Democrats kept their majority in the state Senate and flipped the state House — a substantive rebuke of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who’d put a 15-week abortion ban at the center of his campaign to help the GOP win full control of the government in what has become a blue-leaning state over the last decade.

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