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EDITORIAL: DeSantis, Haley look strongest in GOP debate

It’s difficult to name a winner in the GOP debate in Miami given that all five of those on stage appear to be competing for silver. Yet signs abound that at least one of the contenders could yet emerge as a serious alternative to Donald Trump.

Post-debate surveys revealed that Republicans felt former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis turned in the strongest performances, while entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie performed the worst. But the polling, according to fivethirtyeight.com, also highlighted that the event changed few minds and that Mr. Trump isn’t hurting himself by refusing to participate.

The debate questions touched on a variety of issues, including foreign policy. Ms. Haley shines in this arena. She minced few words in taking a strong position against China, Iran and Russia, while forcefully defending the need for additional U.S. aid for Israel and Ukraine. Ms. Haley also made a cogent case that Biden administration missteps overseas have made the world a more dangerous place.

Ms. Haley also stood out on abortion, which has become a major headache for Republicans. The party again suffered electoral defeats last week that many analysts believe can be traced to voter discomfort with the anti-abortion agenda. Ms. Haley said that the GOP must be “honest” with the American people about the issue and that a federal abortion ban is simply impossible given that it would need 60 votes in the Senate to pass. “Let’s find consensus,” she said, adding, “We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore.”

In contrast, Gov. DeSantis took a more hard-line stance on abortion — which is proving to be a losing hand — and, while expressing unequivocal support for Israel, outlined a less hawkish position on America’s obligation to Ukraine. He also touted his strong record on the border.

Both Gov. DeSantis and Ms. Haley expressed support for Mr. Trump’s accomplishments while in the Oval Office but said it was time for Republicans to move forward.

Yet the two have had trouble piercing the aura of Mr. Trump’s inevitability. It’s worth noting, however, that a significant number of GOP voters have expressed interest in supporting a candidate other than the former president. According to fivethirtyeight.com, nearly half of Republican voters say they would be open to backing Gov. DeSantis, while 38 percent say the same about Ms. Haley.

A recent New York Times/Sienna College poll showed Mr. Trump leading President Joe Biden in five of six key swing states — including Nevada. But it also showed other GOP candidates faring well against the president. Ms. Haley, for instance, led in all six states — by double-digits in three of them. Gov. DeSantis was ahead in four of the states, although by smaller margins.

The challenge for Ms. Haley or Gov. DeSantis will be to consolidate support as the field narrows and to convince the party faithful that nominating the baggage-laden Mr. Trump risks alienating the vital swing and independent voters necessary to prevail next November. At some point, after all, Mr. Trump will have to engage with his challengers.

This commentary initially appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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