With the Iowa Caucuses 39 days away, the final four Republican presidential aspirants vying for second place behind the absent yet dominant former President Donald Trump took the stage at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to make their case to voters, for the fourth time this year.
The wide-ranging and often combative exchanges between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may not have changed many already-settled minds, but did reveal that Ms. Haley’s polling surge had rivals zeroing in on her—particularly Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy.
Yet by the end of the two-hour debate, it was Mr. Ramaswamy who was in the bullseye, with Ms. Haley drawing an ovation for refusing to respond to his baiting and Mr. Christie calling him “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” Mr. Ramaswamy at one point told Mr. Christie “to get the hell out of the race” because he has no chance of winning.
Unlike the three previous debates, there was little restraint imposed on the audience, which hooted and hollered for their favored candidates. Ms. Haley, in particular, appeared to have a vociferous contingent of supporters in the room.
The debate ran a gamut of issues: electability, foreign affairs, COVID-19 vaccines, border security, immigration, election integrity, China, Taiwan, and, of course, President Trump.
1. Questions on ElectabilityThe long night in Tuscaloosa opened with tough questions from journalist Megyn Kelly for all four candidates—perhaps the sharpest aimed at them in the opening round of any debate this cycle.
“You were seen by many as the candidate most likely to consolidate the non-Trump field. But here we are a month out from the first real votes, and you haven’t managed to do it,” Ms. Kelly said in her opening question to Mr. DeSantis, before pointing out that Ms. Haley is now ahead of him in South Carolina and New Hampshire, and both are far behind President Trump.
Ms. Kelly asked Mr. DeSantis if voters are telling him, as Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said they did of him, “Not no, but not now.”
“We have a great idea in America. The voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters,” the Florida governor responded. He pointed out that many political commentators anticipated a “red wave” in 2022 that didn’t materialize in most places.
“The one place it didn’t crash and burn was in the state of Florida,” he said, before continuing with a pitch to voters over COVID-19, gender ideology, and other issues.
Ms. Kelly then asked Ms. Haley about the money she made after leaving her role as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nationa, saying that the candidate went from having $100,000 to being “reportedly worth $8 million.”
“Aren’t you too tight with the banks and the billionaires to win over the GOP?” Ms. Kelly asked, after mentioning Ms. Haley’s high-profile meetings with major finance donors.
“In reference to donors coming on board, look, we will take support from anybody,” Ms. Haley said, before running through a record she said made her “a conservative fighter.”
“I don’t ask them [donors] what their policies are. They ask me what my policies are,” she said.
Mr. Ramaswamy was asked about his tone over the course of the previous debates.
“You stood up at the first debate and attacked all of your competitors as bought and paid for,” Ms. Kelly said, before accusing him of vacillating on his willingness to insult other candidates over successive debates.
“Can you see how this has led some to conclude that you are not, in fact, a unifier?” she asked the businessman.
Mr. Ramaswamy said he identified “good people” on stage during the third debate, mentioning Mr. DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum but not Ms. Haley or Mr. Christie.
After pivoting to attacks on Ms. Haley’s donors, the candidate returned to whether or not he was a “unifier.”
“I think it’s going to take somebody whose best days in life are still ahead to see a country whose best days are ahead of itself, and I think I can reach that next generation better than anybody else in this race,” he said.
Ms. Kelly asked Mr. Christie about the apparent lack of support he has received from Republicans, including in key early states.
“Voters may wonder how you could possibly become the nominee of a party that does not appear to like you very much,” she said.
“It’s often very difficult to be the only person on the stage who’s telling the truth,” Mr. Christie responded, before criticizing the three other candidates for “acting as if the race is between the four of us.”
2. The Elephant in the RoomThe elephant in the room—President Trump—stomped through Tuscaloosa repeatedly, including during a round of questions from the moderators. (The real President Trump was reportedly at a closed-door fundraiser in Florida.) President Trump has called for the RNC to stop the debates. Although the debates may have made a difference in the polls for some candidates, he’s far ahead of any Republican competitor just a few weeks before the Iowa caucus.
As expected, Mr. Christie went on the offensive against President Trump from the beginning, describing him in his answer to Ms. Kelly’s opening question as “the fifth guy who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here.”
The Trump-related questions midway through the debate shook things up.
Asked if she would back his plan to screen incoming immigrants based on ideology, Ms. Haley was somewhat equivocal.
“I don’t think you have a straight-up Muslim ban as much as you look at the countries that have terrorist activity,” she said, naming Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon among the countries where she would “be careful.”
Mr. DeSantis took issue with mass immigration to Europe, saying there was now “more anti-Semitism in Germany than at any time since Adolf Hitler.”
“Europe is committing suicide with the mass migration, and it’s illegal and legal,” he added.
Mr. Christie was asked about a comment by President Trump in Iowa, where he quipped he wouldn’t be a dictator “except for day one.”
“There’s no mystery to what he wants to do. He started off his campaign by saying, ‘I am your retribution,’” Mr. Christie said.
The former New Jersey governor described President Trump as “an angry, bitter man.”
Mr. Christie later took issue with Mr. DeSantis’s answer to a question about the former president’s mental fitness for office. The Florida governor had said, “I think when you get up to 80, I don’t think it’s a job for that.”
“The question was very direct. Is he fit to be president or isn’t he?” Mr. Christie interjected after Mr. DeSantis’s answer.
“I don’t know how he would score on a test,” Mr. DeSantis later said.
Mr. Ramaswamy accused his three colleagues of “licking Donald Trump’s boots for years for money and endorsements,” echoing points the Trump campaign has made.
“The real enemy is not Donald Trump. It’s not even Joe Biden. It is the deep state that Donald Trump at least attempted to take on, and if you want somebody who can speak truth to power, then vote for somebody who’s going to speak the truth to you,” he said, before running through a laundry list of controversial topics—among them, that “the Great Replacement Theory is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory.”
Ms. Haley also made a point of criticizing President Trump’s policies on China, saying that “he allowed fentanyl to continue to come over,” among other moves.
Mr. DeSantis jumped in, pointing to Ms. Haley’s record on firms with ties to China while she was governor of South Carolina—but he didn’t bring up the former president.
“She’s been very weak on China,” Mr. DeSantis said of his chief rival not named “Trump.”
President Trump didn’t issue a direct response to the debate as it aired, or shortly afterwards. On his social media platform, Truth Social, the Republican frontrunner posted two ads attacking President Joe Biden.
3. DeSantis and Ramaswamy Attack HaleyIt was clear within the debate’s first minutes that the ascending Ms. Haley would be in the cross-hairs of Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy when both used their first opportunities to speak to launch an attack on her.
The Florida governor said he was “sick of Republicans who are not willing to stand up and fight back against what the left is doing … like Nikki Haley” who he said, “caves anytime the left comes after her, anytime the media comes after her.”
Mr. DeSantis claimed Ms. Haley opposed Florida’s law prohibiting transgender surgeries and procedures.
“She said the law shouldn’t get involved in that. And I just ask you, if you’re somebody that’s going to be the President of the United States, and you can’t stand up against child abuse, how are you going to be able to speak the truth?”
“I never said that,” Ms. Haley said. “I said that if you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, you should have to be 18 to have anything done to change.”
Mr. Ramaswamy likewise used an opening question about his own electability to throw jabs and Ms. Haley, calling her “corrupt” and pointing to the money she has made since leaving public office.
“My husband is in the military and I served our country as U.N. ambassador and governor. It may be bankrupt to [Mr. Ramaswamy], but it certainly wasn’t bankrupt to us. Secondly, I did serve on the Board of Boeing. I did a lot of work with Boeing when I was governor. They were a great partner for South Carolina,” Ms. Haley said, explaining that she left Boeing when the company sought a government bailout.
“And in terms of these donors that are supporting me,” she said, Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy “are just jealous. They wish that they were supporting them.”
Mr. DeSantis continued hammering away at Ms. Haley’s association with corporations, such as BlackRock, noting he withdrew Florida’s pension programs from the company’s ESG purview.
“I took $2 billion away from BlackRock. We took action. This ESG—they call it environment, social, governance—and, again, Nikki’s meeting with all these people. They want to use economic power to impose a left-wing agenda on this country,“ Mr. DeSantis said. ”The fact of the matter is, we know from her history, Nikki will cave to those big donors when it counts.”
Mr. Ramaswamy attacked Ms. Haley for her social media policy proposals, claiming she “thinks the government should identify” anonymous internet users. ”That is not freedom, that’s fascism, and she should come nowhere near the levers of power in the White House,” he said.
“I love all the attention fellas, thank you for that,” Ms. Haley said. “What I said was that social media companies need to show us their algorithms. I also said there are millions of bots on social media right now. I will always fight for freedom of speech for Americans. We do not need freedom of speech for Russians, and Iranians, and Hamas.”
Mr. Christie had essentially been an observer to that point, but he came to Ms. Haley’s defense.
“We’re now 25 minutes into this debate and he has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence, not positions, her basic intelligence. If you want to disagree on issues, that’s fine. Nikki and I disagree on some issues, but I'll tell you this, I’ve known her for 12 years,” he said.
“This is a smart, accomplished woman you should stop insulting.”
4. COVID-19 and ‘the Jab’Conservative and libertarian voters concerned about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines had to wait until the 4th debate this year to finally hear the different candidates weigh in.
Mr. Ramaswamy, known for his work in the pharmaceutical industry and on Ohio’s coronavirus task force, was asked if President Trump should take pride in Operation Warp Speed, the effort to bring the COVID-19 vaccines to the market in record time.
The candidate sidestepped the question, saying that, while he admired President Ronald Reagan, he shouldn’t have shielded vaccine manufacturers from liability—referring to a 1986 law.
“As part of my legislative agenda, we will repeal that, just like we will repeal every other form of crony capitalism,” Mr. Ramaswamy said.
“I think one of the top lessons we learned from the COVID pandemic is that free speech in this country is most important in those alleged times of emergency. If we had been allowed to openly debate the merits of those vaccines, they would have never been mandated in the way that they were,” he said.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s detailed answer skirted the mention of President Trump. So did Mr. DeSantis’s response.
“We need a reckoning for what this government did during COVID-19,” the Florida governor said, claiming he would “clean house” in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Earlier in the debate, Mr. DeSantis took issue with the way President Trump treated Dr. Anthony Fauci, then at the helm of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
“He [Trump] didn’t even fire Dr. Fauci,” he said.
5. Defending TaiwanAll four candidates said they would uphold the United States’s commitment to defend Taiwan if China acts on its threat to invade the island nation. Mr. Ramaswamy repeated his qualifier that he’d only sustain the pledge for the “foreseeable future” as part of a “broader deterrence” policy.
That would mean taking “our relationship with India to the next level and be able to block the Andaman Sea, which is where China gets most of its Middle Eastern oil supplies. That’s critical.”
Asked about previous comments that he’d “stop China from invading Taiwan” by putting guns “in the hands of every family and train them how to use it.”
“The Second Amendment is a critical way of preventing foreign autocrats” from threatening their citizens and those in other nations, Mr. Ramaswamy said.
“It’s worked in America, why wouldn’t it work in Taiwan?” he said.
Ramaswamy said the United States for a generation has been cowed by China “because we’re scared. Why are we scared? Because we depend on them for our modern way of life. Why do we depend on them for a lot of way of life? It’s because Nikki Haley’s latest friends, like Larry Fink, have created commingled economies with BlackRock and Exxon and Chevron.”
Mr. DeSantis said defending Taiwan is “long-standing American policy and we will follow that. But here’s the thing: Taiwan is important, not just because of semiconductors but important because, if China’s able to break out of this first island chain, they’re going to be able to dominate commerce in the entire Indo-Pacific. They will use that to export authoritarianism all around the world, including the United States.”
Mr. DeSantis said multi-national corporations, including some based in the United States, and including “some of them who are supporting Nikki [Haley] on Wall Street,” have “bought into China.”
China, he said, is “already exerting a huge amount of authority over this country [and] it will get a lot worse” unless the United States ramps up its military and economic deterrence policies against the Chinese Communist Party.
“Deterring China’s ambitions is the number one national security task that I will do as president and we will succeed. The 21st century needs to be an American century. We cannot let it be a Chinese century,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Ms. Haley said as U.N. ambassador she was “hands on when it comes to China and Taiwan.”
The one way that we keep China from going into Taiwan is, one, make sure that we win in Ukraine, that we protect our friends, but also let China know that they'll be hell to pay if they go into Taiwan. They need to know that there is going to be a force that’s going to go against them and they need to know it’s not just going to be the United States,” she said.
Among the biggest advantages the United States has over China is alliances across the globe and in the Western Pacific, she said.
“We need to build our partnerships with India, with South Korea, with Japan, with the Philippines, with Australia. We need to start pulling that alliance together,” Ms. Haley said.
Such alliances would not merely relate to military deterrence but also economics, she said. “If China pulled the rug out from under us tomorrow, would we be ready? We have to make sure that we are not relying on China for anything related to our national security, which means let’s start focusing on doing deals with our friends now.”
Ms. Haley said the only thing President Trump “was good at” was trade with China, but his administration failed to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable for its actions.
Mr. Christie disagreed. President Trump “wasn’t good on trade and the proof he wasn’t good on trade with China is that all he did was impose tariffs, which raised the prices for every American and has contributed to inflation in this country. Yes, it’s more government spending. Yes, it’s the fact that we’re printing too much money. Yeah, absolutely. But it is also the increase in prices that were driven by Donald Trump’s tariffs.”
Mr. Christie dismissed suggestions that economic ties would deter China from undermining democracies and that those ties would not restrain him from responding aggressively against any threat from the Chinese Communist Party.
“I’m not afraid, based upon those economic relationships, to do that, because economic relationships mean nothing. Nothing,” he said.