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GOP Debate Focuses on Wars, Economy, Abortion — But There's One Anti-Trans Dig

Republican candidates
Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott goes after trans people, while Vivek Ramaswamy goes after pretty much everybody.


The third Republican presidential hopefuls’ debate this year was, unlike the first and second, almost devoid of attacks on transgender people, probably because none of the moderators asked about the subject, although one got in a dig toward the end.

In his closing remarks at Wednesday’s debate, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina did so while promoting what he considers core American values. “We need, a renewal, a great awakening,” he said. “We should reject the left’s valueless, faithless, fatherless society. … We should stop kneeling in protest and start kneeling in prayer. There are basic truths that built this country. If you’re able-bodied in America, you work. If you take out a loan, you pay it back. If you commit a violent crime, you go to jail. And if God made you a man, you play sports against men.” He received applause from the crowd in Miami.

But he and the other four candidates on the stage spent most of their time arguing over who’s most pro-Israel, most anti-TikTok, toughest on China and immigration, and strongest for energy independence. And some hedged a bit on abortion, probably given that Tuesday’s election results showed that voters don’t agree with Republican efforts to ban or severely restrict the procedure. Ohio voters enshrined the right to abortion in the state’s constitution, and pro-choice candidates won notable victories in Virginia’s legislative races. The debate was moderated by NBC anchors Lester Holt and Kristen Welker, and conservative moderator Hugh Hewitt.

As might have been expected, businessman and political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy was the source of much of the evening’s fireworks. Some of this came during discussion of banning TikTok — the popular video app is controversial because it’s owned by a Chinese company and there are fears that the parent company would share user information with China’s government.

Ramaswamy noted that the daughter of one of his rivals, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, has a TikTok account. “She made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time,” he said. “So you might want to take care of your family first before preaching to anyone else.”

Haley quickly retorted, “Leave my daughter out of your voice.” She then added, “You’re just scum.” The daughter, by the way, is an adult.

Some conservatives have accused TikTok of spreading so-called gender ideology, essentially, convincing users to transition, but that allegation didn’t come up Wednesday night. There was some discussion of the app favoring anti-Israel content during that country’s war against Hamas, although allegations of bias have been called into question.

The candidates were quick to assert support for Israel and call out anti-Semitism, especially on college campuses, and some called for bans on certain student groups or penalties for universities that allow them. Ramaswamy diverged from this, condemning anti-Semitism but opposing any censorship of speech. (Some of the groups say they are primarily expressing support for Palestinians, which is not necessarily anti-Semitic.)

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the only debate participant to speak out against Islamophobia as well as anti-Semitism. He noted that when he was a federal prosecutor in New Jersey at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he fought hate crimes against Muslim residents as well as Jewish ones and others. “It takes leadership to do this,” he said. “You must work with both sides.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, derided President Joe Biden’s administration for fighting “so-called Islamophobia.”

Ramaswamy got in the biggest dig against Biden, however, claiming he won’t actually be the Democrats’ presidential nominee. “End this farce that Joe Biden is gonna be your nominee,” he said in his closing remarks. “We know he’s not even the president of the United States. He’s a puppet for the managerial class.”

“Biden should step aside, end his candidacy now so we can see whether it’s [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom or Michelle Obama or whoever else,” he continued. “Just tell us the truth so we can have an honest debate.”

Ramaswamy also notably said Ukraine “has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks,” a remark that many took to be about President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust. His campaign spokeswoman later said he was referring not to Zelensky but to a World War II veteran, although she acknowledged his remark could have been taken as a reference to Zelensky. Ramaswamy opposes any further aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Haley contended that Russian President Vladmir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are “salivating” at the idea of Ramaswamy becoming president, given his isolationist views. In addition to being South Carolina’s governor, Haley was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Donald Trump’s presidency.

When abortion rights finally came up toward the end of the debate, Ramaswamy said he was upset about the Tuesday vote in his home state of Ohio, and he called for greater “sexual responsibility” on the part of men. DeSantis said Republicans had failed to get their message across in referendums on the issue, which have universally seen voters support abortion rights. “We have been caught flat-footed,” he said.

Some others called for common ground with abortion rights supporters, such as promoting adoption and access to contraception — both of which abortion rights proponents endorse, while some opponents claim certain forms of contraception actually cause abortions, so they seek to make it more difficult to obtain insurance coverage for them. And conservative forces have often fought against allowing LGBTQ+ people to adopt children.

Christie also said a problem for Republicans is “we’re not pro-life for the whole life” and urged more assistance to people in need, which is something his party has certainly not been strong on. He said it was correct for the Supreme Court to throw the abortion issue back to the states when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Haley agreed and again pointed out the difficulty of passing a national abortion ban. Scott, who has made much of his conservative Christian values, said he would support a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and additional aid to so-called crisis pregnancy centers. These centers, however, while ostensibly assisting people who have unintended pregnancies, actually offer little practical support.

Front-runner Trump again skipped the debate, instead holding a rally in the nearby city of Hialeah.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, campaign manager for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, released this statement about the debate: “Normally, after you lose, you take a moment to reflect and course correct. But in Donald Trump’s MAGA Republican Party, apparently you double down on the same extreme agenda that was soundly rejected last night in elections across the country. That’s what we witnessed tonight: the entire Republican field once again embracing Donald Trump’s losing and extreme MAGA agenda of banning abortion, cutting Social Security and Medicare, and rigging the economy for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of working Americans. In fact, the only thing that the American people agree with these MAGA Republicans on is that their extreme agenda has left them reeling as ‘a party of losers.’

“A year from now, Americans will face a clear choice — between President Biden, who is focused on the issues impacting you, and MAGA Republicans, whose policy platform is to make things worse for you by taking away your freedoms. We’ll spend the next year making sure every American knows just that.”

Pictured, from left: Candidates Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring, The Advocate's copy chief, has spent much of her journalistic career covering the LGBT movement. When she's not fielding questions about grammar, spelling, and LGBT history, she's sharing movie trivia or classic rock lyrics.
Trudy Ring, The Advocate's copy chief, has spent much of her journalistic career covering the LGBT movement. When she's not fielding questions about grammar, spelling, and LGBT history, she's sharing movie trivia or classic rock lyrics.