There were few fireworks at Wednesday’s Republican debate in Miami. No major flops either (though Vivek Ramaswamy continued to prove he’s unfit to be president and, in the famous words of Chris Christie at a previous debate, he sounds more “like ChatGPT.”)

Was there a clear winner? With Donald Trump not on stage – and instead holding a rally about 10 miles away in Hialeah – can you truly declare one?

Wednesday was a good night for Ron DeSantis. With only five candidates on stage, he had a chance to talk at length about Israel, gunning down Mexican cartels and other topics.

The question at this point isn’t whether DeSantis will surpass Trump in polls that show the former president with a double-digit lead. DeSantis is fighting to be the anti-Trump alternative, and his debate performance, as good as it was, didn’t neutralize the main threat for that No. 2 spot: former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

If DeSantis’ presence on stage has become more polished over the course of three debates, he’s also facing a formidable opponent in Haley. Quick on her toes – or, as she boasted, her “five-inch heels” – Haley didn’t cede any ground.

With the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks against Israel as the backdrop, the first part of the debate was devoted to foreign policy. DeSantis landed a good one-liner, saying he would tell Benjamin Netanyahu to “Finish the job” against Hamas. He acknowledged the threat of antisemitism in the United States and said he would cancel the visas of college students who support the terrorist group. He sounded tough, so how hard would it be to denounce neo-Nazi marches that have taken place near Orlando – something he has yet to do?

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Foreign policy doesn’t usually decide presidential elections, until it does. With the wars in the Middle East and in Ukraine, the world is more dangerous. DeSantis came out strong on Israel, but the topic has been Haley’s strength since the first debate. By calling Vladimir Putin a “thug,” and defending the need to support Ukraine to deter Russia, she may face resistance from a Republican Party that’s skeptical of U.S. involvement in the war, but she makes a strong argument that America is weaker when it sits on the sidelines.

DeSantis’ answer on Ukraine, by the way, was a flop. He said he would not send troops to the country, even though that’s not under consideration, and deflected by switching to border security.

Meanwhile, at Trump’s Hialeah rally, the focus wasn’t on an unstable world or policy discussions. It was Trump himself, as usual.

Trump took his adoring audience on a gallop down memory lane, reviewing his greatest hits – mean-spirited nicknames, murderous illegal immigrants and all.

The former president touted his Muslim travel ban; name-dropped – “Crooked Joe Biden,” “Pencil Neck” Adam Schiff and, of course, “Ron DeSanctimonius;” pledged to “stop the invasion of our Southern border;” and compared illegal immigrants to bloody-thirsty Hannibal Lecter. He promised “the largest deportation operation in American history.”

He told his predominantly Hispanic fans that he would protect them from communism on these shores.

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Most amazing, as always, were Trump’s shameless accusations that the “radical left Democrat communists” are shredding the Constitution and gutting the rule of law. “We are not the ones endangering American democracy,” he said. “We are the ones saving it.”

This from the man who incited the Jan. 6. Capitol assault on U.S. democracy; faces charges in Georgia that he “unlawfully conspired” to change the 2020 election outcome while participating in a “criminal enterprise;” and vows to use the hammer of the law to rain down retribution on his enemies.

Right, “saving” our democracy.

What would truly reinforce our democracy is a strong Republican alternative to Trump, one that respects our Constitution and democratic processes. But, we’re not naive. Given the former president’s outsize popularity, it’s hard to envision any other candidate’s path to primary victory.

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