(TUSCALOOSA, Ala.) — Four Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Alabama on Wednesday night for one last chance to trade attacks and stake out policy positions before voting starts in the 2024 primary, in Iowa and New Hampshire, next month.
The debate, the smallest yet, featured former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Knives seemed to be out for Haley amid her continued rise in the primary polls. She and DeSantis stood center stage as they vied for a distant second place spot to former President Donald Trump — who once again skipped sparring with his challengers, spending the night fundraising in Florida instead as he remains the polling front-runner.
On the sidelines of the stage, Christie took on Trump while Ramaswamy took on everyone else.
Here are five takeaways from the latest Republican debate:
Haley takes brunt of attacks
Haley, who has earned high marks in past debates, according to polling, was the main target of the attacks on Wednesday night.
From the start, Ramaswamy and DeSantis took on the former ambassador for her stance on China, social media, transgender rights and more.
“She caves any time the left comes after her,” DeSantis said as he slammed her record. “Any time the media comes after her.”
Haley responded: “I love all of the attention fellas.”
One opponent on stage, however, took a moment to defend her from Ramaswamy’s personal digs at her foreign policy chops.
“He has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence. Not her positions, her basic intelligence,” Christie said, adding, “Look, if you want to disagree on issues, that’s fine. Nikki and I disagree on some issues. I’ve known her for 12 years … and while we disagree about some issues and we disagree about who should be president of the United States, what we don’t disagree on is this is a smart accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her.”
DeSantis defends record as campaign stagnates
The first question of the night went to DeSantis and it was about electability.
Moderator Megyn Kelly asked him for his response to voters who, according to the poll numbers that show his support his flatlined in second place, seem to be telling him: “Not no, but not now.”
Like he did throughout much of the night, DeSantis made the case that he’s got a list of conservative wins as governor compared with Trump’s past defeats.
“So we have a great idea in America that the voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters,” he responded. “I’m sick of hearing about these polls, ’cause I remember those polls in November of 2022. They said there was going to be a big red wave. It was going to be monumental, and that crashed and burned. The one place it didn’t crash and burn was in the state of Florida.”
“They weren’t predicting that I would win the way I did, and I won the greatest Republican victory in the history of the state of Florida,” he said, referring to his double-digit election in a famous swing state. “I’m looking forward to Iowa and New Hampshire. The voters are going to be able to speak and we’re going to earn this nomination.”
Christie takes on Trump: ‘An angry, bitter man’
Moderators frequently posed their Trump-related questions to Christie, who has built his campaign on attacking the former president, unlike the other candidates.
Some of his sharpest comments came when asked about Trump’s “dictator” comments to Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday night. Christie said the remarks were “completely predictable” and called Trump an “an angry, bitter man.”
“So do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history, and that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim — empowers him,” Christie said.
“You want to know why those poll numbers are where they are? Because folks like these three guys on the stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable. Let me make it clear. His conduct is unacceptable,” Christie said. “He’s unfit, and be careful what you’re gonna get if you ever got another Donald Trump term. He’s letting you know …. He will only be his own retribution. He doesn’t care for the American people, it’s Donald Trump first,” he said, drawing some boos.
Christie also called out DeSantis for not giving a straight answer when asked if Trump is “mentally fit” for office, accusing DeSantis of being “afraid to answer.”
Ramaswamy keeps up fiery antics
While Ramaswamy’s campaign has faded to the background as his polls remain at 5% nationally, the entrepreneur reprised his role as disruptor on the debate stage.
He was relentless as he went after everyone else. He again called Haley a female “Dick Cheney” and held up a sign that read “Nikki=Corrupt” as he questioned her authenticity. He was booed repeatedly.
At one point, Christie had enough.
“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie said as he pointed a finger at Ramaswamy in one of the most heated exchanges of the night. “So shut up for a little while.”
Narrow policy differences
Ramaswamy was a lone voice advocating for the U.S. to take a less prominent role in the Israel-Hamas war, calling his approach “pro-American” and “pro-Israel.”
“As your next president, my sole moral duty is to you, the people of this country,” he said.
Referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he added, “That’s how I’m going to lead. So I’ll tell Bibi, ‘You smoke the terrorists on your southern border, you go ahead, and we’re rooting for you. We’re going to smoke the terrorists on our southern border,’ and that’s how I’m going to lead this country.”
Slight differences were also apparent when it came to immigration and border policies.
Haley didn’t endorse Trump’s plan to revive his ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries and said instead there should be a review of countries that have terrorist activity and represent a threat to the U.S. DeSantis hit back, saying he’d go further in imposing limits on immigration to countries “hostile” to America.
On transgender health care, Christie offered a divergent stance than his opponents, saying he believes gender-affirming care for minors should be decided by parents and not the government. The other candidates all voiced opposition to medical treatment for those under 18.
“I’m sorry, but as a father of four, I believe there is no one who loves my children more than me,” Christie said. “There is no one who loves my children more than my wife. There is no one who cares more about their success in health, in life than we do, not some government bureaucrat.”
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