What to watch for in the third Republican debate

Five Republican presidential candidates, minus front-runner Donald Trump, will take the stage Wednesday evening at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami for the third presidential primary debate — where they will try to convince voters that they’re still viable in a primary campaign Trump continues to dominate.

Scheduled to participate are: Florida Gov. , former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman , former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. of South Carolina.

The field is already thinning. Former , who participated in the first two GOP primary debates, dropped out of the contest late last month. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who qualified for each of the initial contests, failed to qualify for round three.

This debate, hosted by NBC News, will be clarifying on where each candidate stands vis-a-vis Trump, whose campaign and support show no signs of softening. In recent weeks, most of the candidates onstage Tuesday have taken harder lines against Trump.

But the most hotly contested part of Wednesday’s debate is likely to be about foreign policy. It’s the first debate since Hamas launched its deadly terrorist attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 and Israel hit back with an aerial bombardment and a developing ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Ukraine and China, two other hot-button issues on the right, could also come up.

Those are just a couple of storylines to watch in Wednesday’s debate, which will begin at 8 p.m. ET and air on NBC News and Peacock.

DeSantis vs. Haley

As Haley has caught — or surpassed — DeSantis in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in surveys after the second primary debate, the battle between them has been bubbling up. Both candidates have telegraphed in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s contest exactly how they plan to go after each other.

For DeSantis, that has meant hammering Haley over comments she made about refugees in Gaza and insinuating that Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wanted to bring Palestinian refugees into the country — a claim she has strongly denied. DeSantis allies have also targeted Haley for allowing a Chinese company to build a fiberglass plant in her home state. Paid private speeches Haley gave, for which her campaign said there are no records or transcripts, may come up, too, in this fight.

Meanwhile, Haley has signaled she will hit DeSantis over his energy policy and has suggested his hands aren’t clean on China after references to the country were recently scrubbed from a Florida economic development website.

DeSantis’ zoomed-in focus on Haley shows him locked in a fight for second place — a spot he had comfortably occupied for much of the campaign even as he has failed to knock off Trump.

An ‘unconstrained’ Ramaswamy

Speaking to NBC News ahead of the debate, a campaign adviser offered a couple of blunt hints about how Ramaswamy will approach Wednesday’s contest.

He will be “unconstrained,” this person said, adding that Ramaswamy is “the only non-neocon onstage.”

So expect Ramaswamy to be punching all night.

And with the debate likely to have a heavy foreign policy focus, it won’t be hard for Ramaswamy to draw distinctions with his opponents. On Israel and Ukraine, Ramaswamy’s more isolationist positions will have him counter to the entire rest of the debate stage. In the run-up to the debate, he has been bashing Haley, in particular, over foreign affairs (she hammered him at the first debate on that subject) and held a “Stop World War III” rally on the eve of the contest.

What’s more, Ramaswamy, whose polling has dipped since a small surge this summer, has been viewed as a stand-in for Trump during early debates, and other candidates may take big swings at him in discussion of the ongoing wars.

Trump ‘can’t win’

It seems most of Trump’s rivals (except Ramaswamy) are now arguing Trump can’t win a general election matchup next fall with President Joe Biden.

Onstage Wednesday, keep an eye out for not only who says that, but also why. Candidates have coalesced around the argument as surveys, including a New York Times/Siena College survey of crucial battleground states, show Trump beating Biden all over the map.

Trump’s team has said the attack reeks of desperation. But allies of the challengers say the political landscape will be vastly different when attention turns to Trump and his mounting legal woes.

Wednesday’s debate will be the first since candidates like DeSantis and Scott started to make that argument — one they may decide it’s time to lean harder into in front of a national audience.

The division at home

The outbreak of war in Israel has led to a rise in antisemitism, fears of spreading Islamophobia and pro-Palestinian rights protests against Biden’s support for the Israeli response.

It would hardly be a surprise for Republicans onstage to forcefully condemn the protests and accuse demonstrators of offering material support to a terrorist organization. But in a party that has vigorously championed free speech rights, especially in light of what Republicans see as anti-conservative censorship online, it will be notable to see where candidates draw the line here.

Abortion on the ballot

The debate comes one day after pro-abortion rights voters helped boost Democrats in Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania while passing a ballot initiative in Ohio that enshrines abortion rights in the state constitution.

It’s safe to say Tuesday night’s results showed protecting — and bolstering — abortion rights are still at front of mind for voters in a post-Roe landscape. And that momentum continues to boost Democrats, too.

Following Tuesday’s results, candidates will not only have to battle with each other over what the best path forward is on abortion policy, but they will each have to grapple with why electorates across the country, including in Republican-leaning states, keep lining up against conservative efforts to restrict abortion access.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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