The fourth Republican presidential debate opened and closed with deeply personal clashes as the four candidates onstage pressed their case to be the viable alternative to Donald Trump, the far-and-away frontrunner who again declined to participate.
Smoldering rivalries burst into the open early into Wednesday night’s debate, with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, turning on Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and former United Nations ambassador, as she catches him in the increasingly combative scrap for second place.
The entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy jumped into the fray, tag teaming with DeSantis to attack Haley, accusing her of being captured by corporate interests and “more fascist” than Joe Biden.
“I love all the attention, fellas, thank you for that,” said Haley, whose candidacy has gained momentum in recent weeks. Of the criticism of her corporate donors, she said: “They’re just jealous.”
Chris Christie, a former governor of New Jersey, drew hoots and hollers when he attacked Ramaswamy as an “obnoxious blowhard in America”. He also rode to Haley’s defense, telling Ramaswamy that she was a “smart, accomplished woman and you should stop insulting her”. Ramaswamy shot back that Christie should “get the hell off the stage”.
Christie, who was not given a chance to speak until 17 minutes into the two-hour debate, accused his onstage rivals of treating Trump like the Harry Potter villain Voldemort, “he-who-must-not-be-named”.
“We’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said, pointing to the polls that show Trump dominating the field. “I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken: he is unfit.”
Trump, who Christie derided as a a “dictator” and a “bully” who “doesn’t have the guts to show up” to the debate, spent the evening at a fundraiser in Florida.
Antagonism defined much of the debate, moderated by Elizabeth Vargas of NewsNation alongside the conservative moderators Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News anchor, and Eliana Johnson, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Ramaswamy stood apart, lashing out repeatedly at the other candidates while rattling off rightwing conspiracy theories about the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and dubiously claiming the 2020 election was stolen by “big tech”.
Ramaswamy holds particular disdain for Haley, a fellow Indian American. At one point he held up his legal pad to show that he had written “Nikki = corrupt”. Boos erupted as he accused Haley of playing “identity” politics. Asked if she wanted to respond to his broadside, Haley said: “No, it’s not worth my time.” The audience cheered.
When not attacking each other, the candidates sparred over who was more hostile to China, immigration and trans rights, which has become a flashpoint on the right.
Christie defended his decision to sign legislation as the governor of New Jersey that required the state to develop guidelines regarding transgender students, saying he was standing up for parental rights.
“As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” DeSantis shot back, noting that in Florida he signed into law legislation banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.
A segment on foreign policy focused on the Israel-Hamas war, the threat from Iran and antisemitism on college campuses. Haley and DeSantis used the moment to showcase their staunch support for Israel and to bash universities as liberal enclaves captured by “woke” ideology. Asked whether he would send US troops to rescue American hostages held by Hamas, Christie replied: “Damn right, I would.”
In the second hour, the moderators, pressed the candidates on Trump’s vision for a second term, including his plans to revive a policy banning entry by people from certain Muslim-majority nations. Haley said she opposed a “straight Muslim ban” and that the policy should target countries that are a threat to the US.
DeSantis, who has trod carefully around Trump, was asked if thought the 77-year-old former president was too old to be elected for a second term. “Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said. Under sustained agitating from Christie, who pushed DeSantis to say directly whether he thought Trump was mentally fit to serve, the 45-year-old governor said Trump was not “as bad as Biden”, who is 81, but that the presidency was “not a job for someone that is pushing number 80”.
Trump, who faces 91 federal charges in four cases, several of which are related to his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election he lost, has sought to portray himself as the inevitable nominee. A series of recent polls showed him leading Biden in several swing states even as he continues to articulate an increasingly anti-democratic vision for a second term.
The three previous debates have so far failed to pull Republican voters away from Trump, who maintains a dominant lead in national and early-state polls with six weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses launch the 2024 GOP nomination calendar.
A national Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday before the debate found Trump 40 percentage points ahead of DeSantis, his next closest rival. It also found Haley gaining the most ground since July, climbing nine points from 3% as she attracts more interest from voters and donors.
The vast majority of Republican voters said Trump would be their strongest candidate against Joe Biden, including four in 10 Republicans who currently support another candidate. Further complicating their path to the nomination, supporters of Trump’s Republican rivals are divided on whether the remaining candidates should stay in the race or coalesce around a single alternative.
DeSantis, whose campaign has stalled since he entered the race this summer, has staked his campaign’s success on a strong showing in Iowa, which holds its caucuses on 15 January.
DeSantis earned the high-profile endorsement of Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, and is touting his visits to all of the state’s 99 counties. Yet an NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released at the end of October showed DeSantis tied for second with Haley in Iowa and lagging far behind Trump.
Haley is hoping to build on her campaign’s momentum after a series of strong debate performances. In recent weeks, she has closed in on DeSantis, pulling ahead of him in New Hampshire, while winning over Wall Street donors and racking up endorsements from anti-Trump Republicans, including Americans for Prosperity Action, the political network founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The candidates closed the debate in characteristic fashion. Christie asked Americans to imagine going to the polls on election day next year. Trump, he said, would not be able to join them because by then he would be a convicted felon – a comment that drew boos from the crowd. Ramaswamy used his final moments to label the climate crisis a “hoax”.
Charging that Trump would only bring more chaos to the White House, Haley vowed “no drama, no vendettas, no whining”. DeSantis touted his conservative string of victories as the governor of Florida, declaring that “leadership is not about doing what’s easy”.
In a statement, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, called the Republican debate an “embarrassment” and faulted the candidates for failing to condemn comments Trump made during a televised town hall on Tuesday, in which he deflected questions about whether he would abuse power to seek retribution against his political rivals if elected and claimed he would not be a “dictator” upon returning to the White House “except for day one”.
“For two hours, neither Nikki Haley nor Ron DeSantis could answer a simple question: should his aspirations to be a dictator disqualify Donald Trump from leading the free world?” Harrison said.
Meanwhile, Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Trump’s Super Pac, Make America Great Again Inc, called the four Republicans’ quest to become the party’s nominee “the biggest waste of time, money and energy that politics has ever seen”.
“It’s beyond time for Republicans to do what’s best for the country – unify around President Trump so we can maximize our use of time, money and energy against Joe Biden and the Democrats,” Leavitt said.