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EDITORIAL: DeSantis, Haley rise above others in GOP debate

If Republican voters decide to move on from former President Donald Trump, two clear alternatives have emerged.

On Wednesday, four Republican candidates gathered for the fourth GOP presidential debate. Unlike some past debates, this one had good flow and clash without turning into a hard-to-follow shouting match. Megyn Kelly excelled as both a tough questioner and cat wrangler.

Responding to Nikki Haley’s rise in the polls — she’s now second in most surveys — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis drew contrasts with the former South Carolina governor. He highlighted differences on issues including China, immigration and “gender reassignment” surgery for minors.

Gov. DeSantis also proposed putting universities on the hook for student debt. Done properly, that could incentivize higher education institutions to focus on producing graduates with useful skills and capable of reasoning, instead of zealots for critical race theory. Especially as many colleges expose their moral bankruptcy by protecting antisemitism on campus, this is a policy idea worth exploring.

Vivek Ramaswamy also made a point of taking on Ms. Haley, another indication of her rise in the polls. But the entrepreneur seems to have given up running a serious campaign in pursuit of viral moments for social media. Serving on the board of Boeing isn’t the liability for Ms. Haley that he tried to make it out to be.

Meanwhile Chris Christie has failed to move the needle for Republican voters.

A recent New York Times poll shows Mr. Trump leading President Joe Biden in five of six important swing states. But it also shows Ms. Haley and Gov. DeSantis doing well against Mr. Biden in those states — in fact, Ms. Haley exceeded Mr. Trump’s numbers in a hypothetical race against the president.

Mr. Trump, who has avoided all the GOP debates, remains well ahead among Republicans, according to polls, with the Iowa caucus just two months away. But he remains a divisive figure who has devoted little effort to expanding his coalition beyond his rabid supporters. He’ll need to attract a greater share of independent voters if he hopes to win a second term in the White House.

Republicans should also consider Mr. Trump’s recent track record. With Mr. Trump as the face of the party, Republicans lost scores of winnable races in 2018, 2020 and 2022. He is a one-man turnout machine for Democrats. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to maintain his political support as his legal troubles become front and center in the coming months.

Mr. Trump remains a risk for GOP voters. But if Republicans want an alternative, they will need to quickly coalesce around either Gov. DeSantis or Ms. Haley, who have increasingly separated themselves from the rest of the field.

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