The smallest field yet of GOP candidates faced off Wednesday in the fourth Republican presidential debate of 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with the first salvos of the night aimed at former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, while former President Donald Trump, who holds a wide lead in polling, held a closed campaign fundraiser in Florida.
From the outset, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy had harsh words for Haley, whose poll numbers have been improving after strong performances in the previous debates. She was also endorsed a few days ago by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and a super PAC supporting her has received big donations from tech and Wall Street financiers. The fourth candidate on stage, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, didn't get a chance to speak for the first 15-16 minutes of the debate during the spate of attacks on Haley.
But that soon changed, and Christie used his time to defend Haley against Ramaswamy, whom he deemed "the most obnoxious blowhard in America," and to take his GOP opponents to task for failing to speak out against Trump.
Still, the first three debates have not done much to change the dynamics of the race among Republican primary voters. The latest, from early November, showed Trump winning 61% of likely GOP primary voters nationwide, more than all the other candidates combined. DeSantis polled at 18%, Haley at 9%, Ramaswamy at 5%, Sen. Tim Scott at 4% and Christie at 2%.
Here are the highlights from the fourth Republican presidential debate.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy team up to attack Haley: "I love all the attention, fellas"
DeSantis and Ramaswamy were quick to take shots at Haley, who is rising in the polls as the race for second place heats up.
"She caves anytime the Left comes after her, anytime the media comes after her," DeSantis said.
Ramaswamy later joined in, questioning Haley's wealth since she left government service.
"Nikki, you were bankrupt when you left the U.N. After you left the U.N., you became a military contractor," he said, referring to Haley's stint on the board of Boeing, "whose back you scratched for a very long time and then get foreign multinational speeches like Hillary Clinton is, and now you're a multimillionaire. That math does not add up. It adds up to the fact that you are corrupt."
Ramaswamy also criticized wealthy donors to Haley's campaign, saying they're funding "left-wing causes."
"In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they're just jealous," Haley responded. "They wish that they were supporting them."
DeSantis said, "Nikki will cave to those big donors when it counts."
The pair also went after Haley for proposing that all social media users should be verified by their names online.
"I love all the attention, fellas," Haley said. "Thank you for that."
— Caitlin Yilek
Christie hammers Ramaswamy in defense of Haley: "The most obnoxious blowhard in America"
Christie offered a forceful defense of Haley against Ramaswamy's insults of her intelligence.
After Ramaswamy claimed that Haley could not name three provinces in eastern Ukraine where she would send U.S. troops, Christie accused the entrepreneur of habitually backing away from comments he makes on the campaign trail when he's confronted by political opponents about his positions.
"This is the fourth debate that you would've been voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America, so shut the hell up," Christie told Ramaswamy.
The former New Jersey governor accused Ramaswamy of insulting Haley's intelligence, rather than her policy positions — claiming, for example, that she can't identify regions in Ukraine or find Israel on a map.
"If you want to disagree on issues, that's fine, and Nikki and I disagree on some issues," Christie said. "I've known her for 12 years, which is longer than he's even started to vote in the Republican primary, and while we disagree about some issues and disagree about who should be president of the United States, what we don't disagree on is this is a smart, accomplished woman and you should stop insulting her."
Christie went on to criticize Ramaswamy's lack of experience and claimed that while he was serving as the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, Ramaswamy was "learning about the provinces in Ukraine sitting with his smarta** mouth at Harvard."
"All he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service and not say anything that moves the ball down the field for the United States," Christie said.
— Melissa Quinn
Christie confronts DeSantis over Trump: "Is he fit to be president or isn't he?"
Christie, the strongest Trump critic in the race, confronted DeSantis after he avoided directly answering whether the former president is mentally fit to be in the White House again.
"The idea that we're going to put someone up there that's almost 80 and there's going to be no effects from that, we all know that that's not true," DeSantis told the moderators.
"The question was very direct," Christie said pointedly. "Is he fit to be president or isn't he?"
Christie and DeSantis talked over each other, as Christie repeated, "Ron, is he fit?"
"Look, Father Time is undefeated," DeSantis said. "I don't know how he would score on a test but I know this, we have an opportunity to nominate someone and elect someone for two terms. … We should not nominate somebody who's almost 80 years old."
When DeSantis was asked to clarify whether Trump is fit, Christie mocked him: "He's afraid to answer."
"No I'm not!" DeSantis retorted.
"Either you're afraid to answer or you're not listening," Christie said. "This is the problem with my three colleagues. They're afraid to offend. If you're afraid to offend Donald Trump, then what are you going to do when you're sitting across from President Xi, you sit across from the Ayatollah, you sit across from Putin? You have to be willing to offend with the truth."
Earlier in the debate, Christie called Trump's conduct unacceptable and said he is "an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct." He added that "every one of these policies that he's talking about are about pursuing a plan of retribution."
"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."
— Caitlin Yilek
Divisions emerge among Republican candidates on parental rights
A question about parental rights and gender-affirming care for young people showed a split between Christie and DeSantis over an issue that has gained traction with Republican voters.
Christie said he favors limited involvement from the government and believes parents should be empowered to make decisions about their children.
"I trust parents," he said.
The former New Jersey governor, who opposes state restrictions on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, asserted it's parents who should be making the decisions about this for their children. He made the point that he and his wife care more for their four children than a government official in a dysfunctional Congress.
"You look at these jokers in Congress — it takes them three weeks to pick a speaker, and up until two days ago, they couldn't promote somebody in the military in the United States Senate who earned their new rank. And we're going to put my children's health and my decisions in their hands for them to make those decisions? For Joe Biden to make those decisions?" Christie said.
He warned parents that if they cede those rights on gender-affirming care for their children to states, it would just be the beginning.
"You start to turn over just a little bit of this authority, the authority they're going to take from you next, you're not going to like," Christie said.
But DeSantis defended restrictions on gender-affirming treatment for minors he signed into law as governor of Florida and warned surgical procedures are "mutilating minors."
"We cannot allow this to happen in this country," he said.
Ramaswamy, meanwhile, suggested the federal government should take action on the issue of gender-affirming surgery.
— Melissa Quinn
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