Another GOP Primary Debate … Another Night of Verbal Clashes

On Wednesday night, a shrinking group of GOP Republican presidential hopefuls — former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — faced off in Miami for their party’s third debate.

Our PolitiFact partners fact-checked the candidates in real time. You can read the full coverage here.

The candidates spent a significant portion of the two-hour event on foreign affairs, focusing on the current Israel-Hamas conflict and the Ukraine-Russia war. There was also talk of what they, if elected president, would do to address the nation’s immigration and border issues as well as its mounting antisemitism — on this point, much of it involving college campuses and university presidents, terrorism, and the potential threat from China. They also discussed TikTok.

And their verbal salvos were not friendly fire.

Early on, Ramaswamy took aim at the media and tried unsuccessfully to pose aggressive, critical questions to NBC’s Kristen Welker, one of the moderators. She was joined by Lester Holt, also of NBC, and Salem Radio Network’s Hugh Hewitt.

The first official question for the candidates was why their party’s voters should pick one of them in the primary instead of the current front-runner by miles, former President Donald Trump, who again opted not participate, instead holding a rally for the MAGA faithful in nearby Hialeah, Florida.

Christie brought up Trump’s legal issues: “Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail in courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.” DeSantis countered that Trump no longer suits the times. Trump is a “different guy than he was in 2016” when he was elected president, DeSantis said, adding that Trump owes it to voters “to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance.”

Welker used the recent election to focus on a health-related issue, pushing the candidates to offer their take on Republicans’ difficulties with its post-Roe v. Wade policies and asking what they see as a Republican “path forward” in the wake of abortion-rights victories in Ohio and Virginia, and earlier wins in Kansas and Kentucky.  

Ramaswamy said he was upset about the vote in Ohio, his home state, where voters approved a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights. “Why, it’s back to that Republican culture of losing,” he said. But Scott was unshaken: “I’m 100% pro-life. I have a 100% pro-life voting record.” He pledged his support for a 15-week national abortion limit and challenged DeSantis and Haley to join him.

Haley, who also identifies as pro-life, took a different stance. “When it comes to the federal law, which is what’s being debated here, be honest, it’s gonna take 60 Senate votes, a majority of the House, and a president to sign it.” That level of support, she acknowledged, doesn’t currently exist. Instead, she recommended finding consensus on things like banning abortions late in pregnancy, increasing the availability of contraception, supporting adoption, and not criminalizing women who have the procedure. She also said, however, that if a national law came to her desk if she were president, she would sign it.  

PolitiFact examined the following abortion-related claims made during Wednesday’s debate:

Ramaswamy: Ohio “passed a constitutional amendment that now effectively codifies a right to abortion all the way up to the time of birth without parental consent.”

This is a misrepresentation. On Nov. 7, Ohioans voted yes on a ballot measure that will guarantee “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproduction decisions,” enshrining the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. The amendment allows for restrictions on abortion in pregnancy’s later weeks after a fetus is viable, but requires exceptions for the mother’s life and health — a standard similar to Roe v. Wade

Anti-abortion activists have argued that “health” left undefined could be interpreted to include a wide variety of issues including finances. We found that claim to be False. An expert told us this interpretation differs from how most people, including physicians, have understood the term.

Only about 1% of abortions take place at 21 weeks or later, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. The Ohio Department of Health reports similar numbers.

The amendment does not eliminate parental consent, as Ramaswamy said. Anti-abortion groups have argued that using the word “individual” in the bill could imperil parental consent because it does not distinguish between adults and minors. Legal analysis from the Ohio attorney general said defining “individual” would be left to the courts.

Scott: “Three out of four Americans agree with a 15-week limit” on abortion.

Survey data varies on this question.

A June 2023 poll sponsored by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group, and conducted by the Tarrance Group found that 77% of respondents said abortions should be prohibited at conception, after six weeks, or after 15 weeks. But this poll was sponsored by a group with a position on the issue, and both questions told respondents that fetuses can feel pain at 15 weeks — an assertion that does not have universal consensus among medical experts.

Independent polls varied on the question of an abortion ban after 15 weeks.

A July 2022 survey from Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll found that 23% of respondents said their state should ban abortion after 15 weeks, 12% said it should be banned at six weeks, and 37% said it should be allowed only in cases of rape and incest. Collectively, that’s 72% who supported a ban at 15 weeks or less.

In two subsequent polls, the support for abortion at 15 weeks or earlier was less strong. A September 2022 Economist/YouGov poll found that 39% of respondents supported a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, and 46% opposed it. And a June 2023 Associated Press-NORC poll found that for abortion up to 15 weeks, 51% of respondents said they would allow it, and 45% said they would ban it.

Scott: States like California, New York, and Illinois “allow for abortions up until the day of birth.”

This is misleading.

Reproductive health experts say this rhetoric gives the impression that abortions often happen this late in a pregnancy. But this is not so, even in states with liberal abortion laws.

In California, New York, and Illinois, abortion is legal up until fetal viability, or at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion in these states is also legal when the mother’s life is at risk.

The vast majority of abortions in the U.S., about 91%, occur in the first trimester. About 1% take place after 21 weeks, and fewer than 1% occur in the third trimester, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, entitlement reform was briefly discussed in the context of the dwindling Social Security trust fund, though there was a clear unwillingness to raise the retirement age and say what that age would be. And Haley staked out another hard line when it comes to broader changes.

“Any candidate that tells you that they’re not going to take on entitlements is not being serious,” she said. “Social Security will go bankrupt in 10 years, Medicare will go bankrupt in eight,” she added. But aside from a quick mention of expanding Medicare Advantage plans and “increasing competition,” she didn’t offer many policy details.

Fentanyl, which was blamed for tens of thousands of overdose deaths last year, drew agreement from across the stage about the need to bulk up the nation’s response at the southern border by using military technology and law-and-order approaches to stop the deadly drug’s flow into the U.S. Christie and Haley agreed on these points to attack the supply of the drug, but also emphasized treatment.

“We also need to lower demands here,” Christie said. As president, he said, “we’re going to call this what it is. It is a disease like heart disease, diabetes, or any other disease like cancer that can be treated and should be treated.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not qualify for this debate based on polling and fundraising thresholds set by the Republican National Committee. Former Vice President Mike Pence was also not on the stage, having dropped out of the 2024 presidential race last week.

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