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DeSantis and Ramaswamy take shots at Haley in fourth GOP primary debate

The two candidates are trying to halt the former UN ambassador’s rise in the polls

republican debate
Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, at the fourth Republican primary debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Nikki Haley became the center of attention Wednesday in the fourth debate of the Republican primary candidates for the 2024 presidential election. The rise in the polls of the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. made her the target of Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, who are competing with her for second place, behind Donald Trump, among the GOP candidates. Both launched into attacks against her from their opening remarks, before even having time to warm up. Haley joked: “I love all the attention, fellas. Thank you for that.” And the fourth candidate in the debate, Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey, stuck his finger on the sore spot. “These three are acting as if the race is between the four of us,” he said, pointing out that “the fifth guy,” in reference to Donald Trump who, absent once again, still has a commanding lead over the rest of the field.

It’s unclear whether these attacks will make a dent in Haley’s support or reinforce her as the alternative to Trump, but at times she looked uncomfortable with no time to respond to all the criticism. The entrepreneur Ramaswamy, foul-mouthed and rude at times, drew a few boos from the audience with his personal attacks on Haley. Florida Governor DeSantis was more careful, but also forceful.

Both portrayed the former South Carolina governor, the only woman in the primary race, as pandering to corporate interests and not conservative enough. The fourth debate was held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a fifth debate has not been scheduled at this time. The primary race begins on January 15 with the Iowa caucus.

DeSantis was quick to attack her on almost any issue being debated, which was especially noteworthy because that had not been his strategy in previous debates. The Florida governor has been falling steadily in the polls, and Haley is on his heels. He attacked her on issues such as social media, transgender people and immigration, often appearing somewhat tense, gesticulating, exasperated, as if in the midst of a frantic last-ditch attack.

In particular, DeSantis and Ramaswamy criticized Haley’s contacts with investment firms such as BlackRock, which advocates sustainability principles. They also attacked her for having served on the board of Boeing, from which she resigned after opposing a public bailout. “In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them,” Haley responded.

Ramaswamy slammed Haley for being “bankrupt” when she stepped down as ambassador to the United Nations and then went on to serve on the board of aerospace giant Boeing Co. In response, Haley defended her 10 months of service on Boeing’s board, noting that she left it during a dispute over bailout funds over Covid. “We weren’t bankrupt when I left the U.N. — we’re people of service. My husband is in the military, and I served our country as U.N. ambassador,” she answered first. “I love Boeing. I opposed public bailouts in Wall Street when many Republicans backed them. I tell voters what I believe. They don’t tell me,” she added.

Republican presidential candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a handwritten sign referring to fellow candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
Republican presidential candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a handwritten sign referring to fellow candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Ramaswamy also attacked her over the fact that prominent Democratic donor Reid Hoffman had given $250,000 to a political action committee that supports her. Hoffman, he said, “is effectively George Soros Jr.” And there was a somewhat childish moment in which he garnered an abundance of boos when he pulled out a handwritten sign that read “Nikki=Corrupt.” The moderator said to Haley, “Do you wish to respond?” and she knocked her rival out, “No, it’s not worth spending the time to respond.” Haley already had a standout moment in the third debate when she told her rival, “You’re just scum.”

The attacks were so blatant that Christie at one point came out in Haley’s defense, especially against Ramaswamy. “This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America. So shut up for a little while,” said Christie.

Christie was also the only one who openly attacked Trump. “It’s often very difficult to be the only person on the stage who’s telling the truth,” he said. He referred to the former president as “dictator” and an “angry, bitter man,” and, facing the silence of his debate partners, added they acted as if he were “Voldemort, he who must not be named,” in reference to the Harry Potter villain. And he also said that perhaps his rivals avoided criticizing Trump because they had future aspirations. “The fact of the matter is, he is unfit to be president. And there is no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump,” Christie added.

The former governor of New Jersey clashed with DeSantis because the latter would not comment on whether Trump was fit for office. He limited himself to saying that someone who is not so old and who has the possibility of serving two terms should be chosen. “This is the problem with my three colleagues. They’re afraid to offend,” Christie said, before adding, “If you’re afraid to offend Donald Trump, then what are you going to do when you sit across from President Xi and you sit across from the Ayatollah and you sit across from Putin? You have to be willing to offend with the truth and answer the question: Fit or unfit?”

Christie, in fact, also used his closing argument to attack Trump and was booed, to which he replied. “You can boo about it all you like and continue to deny reality,” he replied to the crowd, adding if Republicans “deny reality as a party, we’re going to have four more years of Joe Biden.” For his part, Ramaswamy, who had embraced during the debate various far-right conspiracy theories, including that the assault on the Capitol was staged, squandered his final remarks by saying that climate change is a hoax.

That left Haley and DeSantis, the two — not so — direct competitors of Trump in the polls. Haley offered herself as an alternative to the former president, expressly quoting him: “Our country is in chaos,” she said, pointing to the southern border, crime and the economy. “But you can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos and that’s what Donald Trump gives us. My approach is different. No drama. No vendettas. No whining.” And DeSantis appealed to his electoral success as governor: “Leadership is not about doing what’s easy,” he says, promising to “keep the faith.”

Trump, meanwhile, had fundraising events on his agenda. And he continues to have a commanding lead in the polls.

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