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Republican presidential candidates participate in a presidential primary debate Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Miami.Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press

Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination took direct aim at the former president – accusing him of “getting weak in the knees” on foreign policy and failing on signature campaign promises such as the Mexican border wall – as they desperately tried to arrest his runaway momentum in their third debate.

Canada also received two brief mentions during the evening: when entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy argued for a wall on the U.S.-Canadian border to stop fentanyl smuggling and when South Carolina Senator Tim Scott promised to revive the abandoned Keystone XL oil pipeline if elected.

Mr. Trump, who holds a staggering, 40 percentage-point lead in most polls of Republican voters, skipped the Wednesday debate as he did the previous two outings. He opted instead to counter-program the Miami tilt with a rally in nearby Hialeah.

For the five contenders on stage, it was an opportunity to claw back into contention for the chance to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden next year. The pressure was most acute on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who started the race with high hopes only to see his poll numbers sink, and Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s former UN ambassador, who had slowly improved her standing with fiery debate performances.

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And where most of Mr. Trump’s GOP competitors have previously shied away from criticizing him for fear of drawing the ire of his loyal base, this time they dropped the gloves.

“He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp. And he said Republicans were going to get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night,” Mr. DeSantis said, referencing the party’s defeats in Kentucky’s gubernatorial and Virginia’s legislative elections Tuesday. “I’m sick of Republicans losing.”

Ms. Haley referenced Mr. Trump’s suggestion he could end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine within 24 hours of returning to the Oval Office. Such a prospect would almost certainly involve forcing Kyiv to make huge concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues. Now, he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again,” she said, an apparent allusion to Mr. Trump’s past admiration of the Moscow autocrat.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie brought up the 91 criminal charges Mr. Trump faces for trying to overturn the 2020 election, absconding with classified documents and covering up a payoff to a porn star.

“Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ramaswamy, who has positioned himself as heir to Mr. Trump’s nationalistic agenda, avoided criticizing the former president. Instead, he trained his ire at a wide range of other targets.

The Republicans, he said, “have become a party of losers” and their chair, Rona McDaniel, represents “a cancer in the Republican establishment.” He accused the NBC moderators of the debate of planning to “rig” the 2024 election. And he referenced internet speculation that Mr. DeSantis wears “three-inch heels” in his cowboy boots to make himself appear taller, a claim the Florida Governor has denied.

The most personal moment of the night, however, came when Mr. Ramaswamy accused Ms. Haley of hypocrisy for criticizing his use of TikTok – the Chinese video app that has raised fears of espionage – when her daughter has used it. “You might want to take care of your family first,” Mr. Ramaswamy chided, to sustained boos from the audience.

“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Ms. Haley fired back. “You’re just scum.”

Mr. Ramaswamy and Ms. Haley have repeatedly tangled as he has sought to set himself apart by advocating the U.S. step back from international military commitments, such as supplying weapons to Ukraine, while she has advocated a more aggressive posture for Washington on the world stage.

On Wednesday, Mr. Ramaswamy suggested the U.S. should leave Israel to fight its war against Hamas alone. Ms. Haley argued her country should instead “support Israel with whatever they need” and Mr. DeSantis said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must “finish the job once and for all with these butchers, Hamas.”

Mr. Scott contended that the U.S. should attack Iran in order to stop Tehran’s proxies from firing on U.S. bases in the Middle East. “You’ve got to strike in Iran if you want to make a difference,” he said. “You actually have to cut off the head of the snake.”

Mr. Biden has so far been reluctant to take such actions for fear of drawing the entire Middle East into a war.

One military measure most candidates agreed on was sending the army to the southern border, and possibly into Mexico itself, to fight criminal cartels. Mr. DeSantis said that, if drug smugglers cross the border, American forces should have orders to “shoot ‘em stone-cold dead.” Ms. Haley said she would “send special operations” into Mexico to “take out” the gangsters.

Mr. Ramaswamy said the U.S. must also look to shut down fentanyl trafficking across the Canadian frontier – and used a Wayne Gretzky adage to propose a particularly outlandish method for doing this.

“There was enough fentanyl that was captured just on the northern border last year to kill three million Americans. So we’ve got to just skate to where the puck is going, not just where the puck is,” he said. “Don’t just build the wall, build both walls.”

The Canada-U.S. border is nearly 9,000 kilometres long and the fentanyl that traverses it represents a small fraction of one percentage point of all the fentanyl in the U.S.

Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported seizing 14 pounds of fentanyl at the Canadian border. So far this year, the figure is two pounds. By comparison, U.S. authorities seized a total of 14,700 pounds of the drug throughout the country in 2022. The most-seized drug at the Canadian border this year, khat, represented a total of 33,400 pounds.

Mr. Scott took a rather different tack on Washington’s relationship with Ottawa. He vowed that his first act if elected president would be to restore the Keystone XL pipeline. This would “start seeing resources flow” and bring down the price of gasoline, he said.

The project was blocked by former president Barack Obama over climate change concerns, revived by Mr. Trump and blocked again by Mr. Biden. TC Energy, the Calgary-based proponent of the line, ended the project shortly after.

Even if the federal government restored its permit, there is no guarantee the pipeline, which still faced opposition from state and local governments, would go ahead, much less with enough speed to immediately increase the U.S. supply of oil.

Editor’s note: Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify when Ron DeSantis's and Vivek Ramaswamy's statements were made. Additional detail has been added to provide context to comments regarding the trafficking of fentanyl across the Canada-U.S. border.

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