By Eric Bradner, Steve Contorno, Arit John and Daniel Strauss, CNN
The four contenders onstage — former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — spent most of the two-hour debate hammering each other, overshadowing efforts to focus attention on the frontrunner in the race.
With the smallest debate field so far and with Iowa’s caucuses less than six weeks away, the candidates were better able to showcase their policy beliefs and explore major differences, but they followed the pattern of previous debates with a series of memorable personal shots.
Ramaswamy referred to Haley as “lipstick on a Dick Cheney.” Christie mocked Ramaswamy’s “smartass mouth.” DeSantis said Haley “caves every time the left comes after her.”
“I love the attention, fellas. Thank you for that,” Haley shot back.
What their clash in Alabama, hosted by NewsNation, made plain is that all of the candidates onstage believe they must first be seen as the GOP’s lone alternative to the former president before making a more focused case against him.
However, it also underscored why Trump has not paid a price in the polls for skipping the debates. There were attacks on the former president: Christie, whose campaign is built on an anti-Trump message, made a sustained case against his return to power, while Haley criticized his approach to China and DeSantis said Trump hadn’t fulfilled his pledge to “drain the swamp” and make Mexico pay for a border wall. But those moments were exceptions in a debate dominated by clashes between the candidates who were actually there.
Here are five takeaways from the fourth Republican primary debate:
DeSantis and Ramaswamy versus Haley
The clearest sign of Haley’s rise in the race? Her opponents made her the center of attention during much of the first hour of the debate.
DeSantis waited all of 30 seconds into his first answer before he took aim at Haley, pulling her into a dispute over which bathrooms transgender people should be able to use. And in his first response, Ramaswamy continued where he left off at the third debate, targeting Haley for her time serving on the board of Boeing, a company that has a major manufacturing facility in the state she once governed.
At several points, DeSantis and Ramaswamy teamed up to pile on criticisms, zeroing in on the support she has received of late from some donors like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a Democratic donor who sent $250,000 to a super PAC supporting her, and the interest coming her way from the likes of BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.
Later in the debate, Ramaswamy held up his notepad on which he had written “Nikki = Corrupt.”
Haley, who also recently received the backing of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said she welcomed help wherever it may come from but wouldn’t let it dictate her policies. And she said her competitors would take the money too if it was offered. DeSantis’ political operation had pushed for American for Prosperity’s support and has seen an exodus of wealthy corporate donors who backed him in the past.
“They’re just jealous,” Haley said. “They wish that they were supporting them.”
For DeSantis, the focus on Haley was particularly notable because leading up to past debates, his campaign suggested his standing atop the polls (among the non-Trump candidates) would make him a lightning rod for attacks. Yet, he made a point to go after Haley early and often as he tries to fend off the increased threat of her campaign in early states like Iowa.
DeSantis jumped in after her answer on China to raise her record of working with Chinese companies as governor of South Carolina. Haley shot back that DeSantis has done the same in his state.
“I have a record of standing up and doing what’s right,” DeSantis said.
To which Haley replied, “You have a record of lying.”
Christie was the exception onstage, coming to Haley’s defense as Ramaswamy lobbed insults aimed at her foreign policy chops.
“We disagree about some issues, and we disagree about who should be president of the United States, but we don’t disagree on this: This is a smart accomplished woman,” Christie said.
Haley turned to him and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Christie gets his groove back
For months, Christie has struggled to recreate the magic of the 2016 presidential primary debate season, when he skewered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio over repeating a debate one-liner. Though Christie didn’t make it far in that primary, Rubio struggled to overcome the perception that he was robotic.
In Tuscaloosa, the former New Jersey governor tapped back into some of that energy, portraying his opponents as immature, annoying and not ready for the job. It may not help him win the nomination, but he isn’t making it easier for the rest of the field – particularly DeSantis and Ramaswamy – either.
Christie attempted to paint DeSantis as unwilling to answer basic questions. When DeSantis was asked if as president he would send US troops to Gaza to rescue American hostages held by Hamas, Christie jumped in.
“When you’re president of the United States, you’re not gonna have a choice whether to answer that question or not,” he said.
Later in the debate, DeSantis was asked if he thought Trump was fit for office. He responded, saying that “Father Time is undefeated.” Christie doubled down.
“Either you’re afraid or you’re not listening. It’s a simple question to answer,” Christie said. “I’m a simple guy. I hear the question, and I answer it.”
With Ramaswamy, Christie went after his tendency to backtrack on comments. During a back-and-forth in which Christie criticized the Ohio businessman’s proposal for a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, the former New Jersey governor accused Ramaswamy of denying what he’s said on the campaign trail when he’s on the debate stage — and of being annoying.
“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted, in the first 20 minutes, as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie said.
But a lot has changed since the 2016 election cycle, including Christie’s allegiance to Trump. He saved some of his most solemn criticism for all three of his opponents, who he said were afraid to “offend” the former president.
“You have to be willing to offend with the truth,” he said.
‘He who should not be named’
After watching his three rivals squabble for the debate’s first 17 minutes, Christie tried to reframe the debate with a reminder: Trump is currently vastly outpacing all of them in the polls.
“I’ve got these three guys who are all seeming to compete with Voldemort — ‘He who should not be named,’” the former New Jersey governor said, referring to the Harry Potter series villain whose name characters avoided saying. “They don’t want to talk about it.”
Christie suggested that other candidates are avoiding taking on Trump directly because they don’t want to hobble their own chances of becoming his vice presidential nominee, or their 2028 presidential prospects.
“When you go and you say the truth about somebody who is a dictator, a bully, who has taken shots at everybody — whether they’ve given him great service or not over time — who dares to disagree with him, then I understand why these three are timid to say anything about it,” Christie said. “Maybe it’s because they have future aspirations; maybe those future aspirations are now or maybe they’re four years from now. But the fact of the matter is, the truth needs to be told.”
Perhaps most telling about the state of the GOP primary race was the reaction to Christie’s comments.
Questions asked of his rivals in the debate’s opening moments had elicited fierce, and sometimes personal, back-and-forth exchanges. Christie’s comments, though, were met by his rivals with silence.
Later in the debate, others did offer limited criticism of Trump. Haley argued the former president had not been tough enough against China. DeSantis said Trump had not followed through on his 2016 campaign pledge to make Mexico pay for a wall on the southern US border.
But only Christie made a sustained case against the former president — a theme he returned to in his closing statement, when he said Trump wouldn’t be allowed to vote in the 2024 election because “he will be convicted of felonies before then.”
When his comments were met with boos, Christie said: “You can boo about it all you like and continue to deny reality. But if we deny reality as a party, we’re going to have four more years of Joe Biden.”
The culture wars come in
DeSantis’ “war on woke” took a backseat during the first three GOP debates, which focused more on foreign policy, electability, US border policy and the economy.
This time, however, he used two domestic culture war issues –environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG, investing and transgender rights – to aid his efforts to paint Haley as a moderate.
In his very first answer, DeSantis pivoted from a question about his campaign to criticize Haley on gender-affirming care for transgender minors.
“I did a bill in Florida to stop the gender mutilation of minors,” DeSantis said. “She opposes that bill. She thinks it’s fine, and the law shouldn’t get involved with it.”
His comments mirrored the points made in a video that Never Back Down, the super PAC backing DeSantis released ahead of the debate. The spot accused Haley of not being willing to “fight the left’s agenda.”
Haley did say that the “law should stay out of it” during a June interview with CBS News. But she went on to add that parents should take the lead, and she did not endorse youth gender transition.
“This is a job for the parents to handle, and then when that child turns 18, if they want to make more of a permanent change, they can do that,” she said.
DeSantis later joined with Ramaswamy to tie Haley’s support from wealthy donors to the ESG investing movement Wednesday night.
“They want to use economic power to impose a left-wing agenda on this country,” he said.
Ramaswamy unloads a string of conspiracy theories
In what could be his last appearance on a GOP presidential debate stage, Ramaswamy gave the clearest voice yet to the extreme conspiracy wing of the Republican Party.
He unloaded a string of false, provocative conspiracy theories, touting himself as the only candidate in the race willing to embrace them.
Among those theories: Ramaswamy called the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters “an inside job.” He said the 2020 election was “stolen by Big Tech.” He said the government “lied to us for 20 years” about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
And he said the “great replacement” theory — a racist conspiracy theory that suggests non-White people are being brought to Western countries to replace White voters and achieve a political agenda — “is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but a basic statement of the Democratic Party platform.”
He said the biggest threat to the United States is “the deep state that at least Donald Trump attempted to take on.”
Ramaswamy later used his closing statement to claim that the “climate change agenda is a hoax.”
“If you thought Covid was bad, what’s coming with this climate agenda is far worse. We should not be bending the knee to this new religion,” he said. “That is what it is. It is a substitute for a modern religion. We are flogging ourselves and losing our modern way of life bowing to this new god of climate, and that will end on my watch.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
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