GOP presidential hopefuls target Nikki Haley more than Trump, and other moments from the debate
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GOP presidential hopefuls target Nikki Haley more than Trump, and other moments from the debate

With the Iowa caucuses rapidly approaching, a shrinking field of Republican White House hopefuls gathered Wednesday in Alabama for the fourth presidential debate.As usual, former President Donald Trump, who is dominating the GOP primary, didn’t appear. Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued their effort to gain a sliver of the spotlight in the race.Here are some takeaways from the final primary debate of 2023.Fighting Trump for onceThe front-runner in the Republican primary has no end of vulnerabilities. He faces 91 criminal charges and just the night before repeatedly refused to rule out abusing power if he returns to office.But, as has been the pattern, Trump was ignored during much of the debate. There was one great exception in the second hour, when the moderators asked Christie about Trump. Christie complained that his three rivals have been silent about the threats Trump presents to democracy.“You want to know why these poll numbers are where they are?” Christie asked. “Because folks like these three people on this stage want to make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”Christie then began jousting with DeSantis, who confined his criticism of Trump to the former president’s age and failure to achieve all of his agenda in his first term. “Is he fit to be president or isn’t he?” Christie asked. “Is he fit? Ron, Ron? He’s afraid to answer.”Ramaswamy accused his rivals of all “licking Donald Trump’s boots,” but then proceeded to argue the Jan. 6,2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job” — hardly distancing himself from the former president and his penchant for lies and misinformation.Ramaswamy has been particularly adept at pulling fire away from Trump. The 38-year-old political novice and pharmaceutical entrepreneur has specialized in grating, personal attacks that his rivals just can’t bring themselves to ignore.Video below: Alabama GOP Chairman John Wahl weighs in on 4th GOP presidential primary debateOn Wednesday, he challenged Haley to name three Ukrainian provinces that he claimed his 3-year-old could identify, and Christie, who had tried to launch an attack on Trump to open the debate, exploded.“All he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service,” Christie said.Minutes later, Haley took an unusual swing at Trump for failing to go further than simple trade actions against China. But DeSantis jumped in, attacking Haley for her relationship with China. The two Republicans began snapping at each other, leaving Trump unmentioned.Again, it went just as Trump would hope — the candidates fought each other rather than him.Haley under attackHaley was under attack from the opening seconds of the debate. And it didn’t let up for almost 20 minutes, a clear reminder that the former United Nations ambassador’s opponents see her as a growing threat in the race.DeSantis amped up the pressure as he answered the debate’s opening question, which was about his struggling campaign.“You have other candidates up here, like Nikki Haley, she caves every time the left comes after her,” DeSantis said, casting himself as a fighter.The Florida governor then seized on Haley’s recent support from Wall Street and at least one major Democratic donor. Ramaswamy soon joined in, highlighting the personal wealth Haley accumulated since leaving the public office.“That math doesn’t add up,” Ramaswamy charged. “It adds up to the fact you’re corrupt.” Minutes later, Ramaswamy called Haley a fascist.Haley defended herself aggressively. But as the political adage goes, if you’re explaining, you’re probably losing.“I love all the attention, fellas, thank you,” she said.And she drew some applause from the crowd when she pushed back against the criticism of her political donations.“In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them,” she said.Christie has faced questions about why he’s not dropping his struggling campaign and backing Haley, who shares many of his more moderate views. While he’s not showing any sign of leaving soon, he took the opportunity to defend Haley, particularly from Ramaswamy’s heated critiques.“This is a smart, accomplished woman,” Christie told Ramaswamy during an animated exchange. “You should stop insulting her.”Video below: University of Alabama Democrats react to 4th GOP presidential primary debateCapitalist contradictionOne candidate was attacked for sitting on a corporate board and being too close to big business. Others fretted about a plot by giant firms to re-engineer the country’s politics — and then one said he wants to gut government regulations to free up business.This wasn’t a Democratic debate, dominated by that party’s skepticism of corporate titans. The Republican party in the era of Trump is a lot more conflicted about business and industry than in its prior, free-market form.That was obvious from the first set of questions aimed at Haley, who was asked whether her roles on corporate boards and donations from major companies would sit well with the party’s “working-class voters.”DeSantis and Ramaswamy continued to hit Haley over that dynamic, even as Haley quipped they were just “jealous” of her donor support. DeSantis also claimed Haley wanted to let in as many immigrants as “the corporations” desired and boasted about how he withdrew $2 billion of Florida public pension money from a hedge fund over its use of environmental, social and corporate governance.“They want to use economic power to impose a left-wing agenda in this country,” DeSantis said of some corporations’ embrace of ESG, an effort to use progressive principles in investing.But then Ramaswamy bemoaned the way the government doesn’t fully recognize cryptocurrencies as a real financial instrument, and segued into promising to eliminate three-quarters of the government bureaucrats to cut regulations. That is a routine promise of Ramaswamy’s, and comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to consider a case that could sharply limit how the federal government can regulate industries, a longtime goal of conservative activists who helped assemble a six-judge majority on the high court.The GOP’s contradictions over corporations weren’t an explicit subject of the debate, but they were an undercurrent that won’t be resolved for a while. Split over rights for transgender peopleOn immigration, on the economy and on China, the candidates on stage largely agreed. One policy area where there were real differences? Transgender rights.The issue was barely on the national radar in the last presidential election. But in 2024, it is a centerpiece of the GOP’s increasing focus on cultural issues.Haley defended her decision, back when she was governor, to decline to support a law that would have limited bathroom use to a person’s gender assigned on their birth certificate.DeSantis pounced. As Florida governor, he insisted he did more to crack down on transgender rights than anyone on stage.“I stood up for little girls, you didn’t,” he chided Haley.DeSantis also offered a fiery argument for laws that block parents from allowing their children to receive transgender-related medical treatment.Christie pushed back. He also reminded his rivals that conservatives used to believe in less government, not more.“These jokers in Congress, it takes them three weeks to pick a speaker… and we’re going to put my children’s health in their hands?” the former New Jersey governor said. “As a parent, this is a choice I get to make.”

With the Iowa caucuses rapidly approaching, a shrinking field of Republican White House hopefuls gathered Wednesday in Alabama for the fourth presidential debate.

As usual, former President Donald Trump, who is dominating the GOP primary, didn’t appear. Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued their effort to gain a sliver of the spotlight in the race.

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Here are some takeaways from the final primary debate of 2023.

Fighting Trump for once

The front-runner in the Republican primary has no end of vulnerabilities. He faces 91 criminal charges and just the night before repeatedly refused to rule out abusing power if he returns to office.

But, as has been the pattern, Trump was ignored during much of the debate. There was one great exception in the second hour, when the moderators asked Christie about Trump. Christie complained that his three rivals have been silent about the threats Trump presents to democracy.

“You want to know why these poll numbers are where they are?” Christie asked. “Because folks like these three people on this stage want to make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”

Christie then began jousting with DeSantis, who confined his criticism of Trump to the former president’s age and failure to achieve all of his agenda in his first term. “Is he fit to be president or isn’t he?” Christie asked. “Is he fit? Ron, Ron? He’s afraid to answer.”

Ramaswamy accused his rivals of all “licking Donald Trump’s boots,” but then proceeded to argue the Jan. 6,2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job” — hardly distancing himself from the former president and his penchant for lies and misinformation.

Ramaswamy has been particularly adept at pulling fire away from Trump. The 38-year-old political novice and pharmaceutical entrepreneur has specialized in grating, personal attacks that his rivals just can’t bring themselves to ignore.

Video below: Alabama GOP Chairman John Wahl weighs in on 4th GOP presidential primary debate

On Wednesday, he challenged Haley to name three Ukrainian provinces that he claimed his 3-year-old could identify, and Christie, who had tried to launch an attack on Trump to open the debate, exploded.

“All he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service,” Christie said.

Minutes later, Haley took an unusual swing at Trump for failing to go further than simple trade actions against China. But DeSantis jumped in, attacking Haley for her relationship with China. The two Republicans began snapping at each other, leaving Trump unmentioned.

Again, it went just as Trump would hope — the candidates fought each other rather than him.

Haley under attack

Haley was under attack from the opening seconds of the debate. And it didn’t let up for almost 20 minutes, a clear reminder that the former United Nations ambassador’s opponents see her as a growing threat in the race.

DeSantis amped up the pressure as he answered the debate’s opening question, which was about his struggling campaign.

“You have other candidates up here, like Nikki Haley, she caves every time the left comes after her,” DeSantis said, casting himself as a fighter.

The Florida governor then seized on Haley’s recent support from Wall Street and at least one major Democratic donor. Ramaswamy soon joined in, highlighting the personal wealth Haley accumulated since leaving the public office.

“That math doesn’t add up,” Ramaswamy charged. “It adds up to the fact you’re corrupt.” Minutes later, Ramaswamy called Haley a fascist.

Haley defended herself aggressively. But as the political adage goes, if you’re explaining, you’re probably losing.

“I love all the attention, fellas, thank you,” she said.

And she drew some applause from the crowd when she pushed back against the criticism of her political donations.

“In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them,” she said.

Christie has faced questions about why he’s not dropping his struggling campaign and backing Haley, who shares many of his more moderate views. While he’s not showing any sign of leaving soon, he took the opportunity to defend Haley, particularly from Ramaswamy’s heated critiques.

“This is a smart, accomplished woman,” Christie told Ramaswamy during an animated exchange. “You should stop insulting her.”

Video below: University of Alabama Democrats react to 4th GOP presidential primary debate

Capitalist contradiction

One candidate was attacked for sitting on a corporate board and being too close to big business. Others fretted about a plot by giant firms to re-engineer the country’s politics — and then one said he wants to gut government regulations to free up business.

This wasn’t a Democratic debate, dominated by that party’s skepticism of corporate titans. The Republican party in the era of Trump is a lot more conflicted about business and industry than in its prior, free-market form.

That was obvious from the first set of questions aimed at Haley, who was asked whether her roles on corporate boards and donations from major companies would sit well with the party’s “working-class voters.”

DeSantis and Ramaswamy continued to hit Haley over that dynamic, even as Haley quipped they were just “jealous” of her donor support. DeSantis also claimed Haley wanted to let in as many immigrants as “the corporations” desired and boasted about how he withdrew $2 billion of Florida public pension money from a hedge fund over its use of environmental, social and corporate governance.

“They want to use economic power to impose a left-wing agenda in this country,” DeSantis said of some corporations’ embrace of ESG, an effort to use progressive principles in investing.

But then Ramaswamy bemoaned the way the government doesn’t fully recognize cryptocurrencies as a real financial instrument, and segued into promising to eliminate three-quarters of the government bureaucrats to cut regulations. That is a routine promise of Ramaswamy’s, and comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to consider a case that could sharply limit how the federal government can regulate industries, a longtime goal of conservative activists who helped assemble a six-judge majority on the high court.

The GOP’s contradictions over corporations weren’t an explicit subject of the debate, but they were an undercurrent that won’t be resolved for a while.

Split over rights for transgender people

On immigration, on the economy and on China, the candidates on stage largely agreed. One policy area where there were real differences? Transgender rights.

The issue was barely on the national radar in the last presidential election. But in 2024, it is a centerpiece of the GOP’s increasing focus on cultural issues.

Haley defended her decision, back when she was governor, to decline to support a law that would have limited bathroom use to a person’s gender assigned on their birth certificate.

DeSantis pounced. As Florida governor, he insisted he did more to crack down on transgender rights than anyone on stage.

“I stood up for little girls, you didn’t,” he chided Haley.

DeSantis also offered a fiery argument for laws that block parents from allowing their children to receive transgender-related medical treatment.

Christie pushed back. He also reminded his rivals that conservatives used to believe in less government, not more.

“These jokers in Congress, it takes them three weeks to pick a speaker… and we’re going to put my children’s health in their hands?” the former New Jersey governor said. “As a parent, this is a choice I get to make.”

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