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'They're just jealous': 5 takeaways as Haley holds spotlight, focus of attacks in 4th GOP debate

Who is best to topple Donald Trump for the Republican nomination?

That has haunted each of the former president’s would-be rivals since the 2024 primary race began − whether they mention him or not.

But it's a question that came more into focus Wednesday during the fourth debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where they needed to make their case to American voters before the Iowa caucuses.

Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, is being endorsed by a major conservative activist network and courted by other big donors as the best contender to defeat Trump, which earned her several arrows from opponents.

"In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous," Haley said in the face of Wednesday's on-stage attacks from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. "They wish that they were supporting them."

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on stage during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate presented by NewsNation at the Frank Moody Music Building University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on stage during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate presented by NewsNation at the Frank Moody Music Building University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

DeSantis, once thought of as the best-suited challenger to Trump, wasn't ready to give up the No. 2 spot. He pushed back when reminded by the moderators about his failure to catch up with Trump and how Haley has passed him in many crucial polls in early voting states.

"The voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters," DeSantis said. "I'm sick of hearing about these polls."

With less than 40 days left until voters have their first say, this debate—which often turned to bitter squabbling—addressed Trump's fitness for office, the economy and what role the U.S. should play in global conflicts.

Here are the big moments from Wednesday’s debate.

Haley fends off DeSantis, Ramaswamy double team

Hours before the debate began, the Haley campaign strutted her growing popularity when it declared: "this is a two person race — between one man, and one woman."

DeSantis wasn't having it, and jousted with her at several points during the two-hour dialogue when touting his conservative wins in Florida saying how Haley "caves anytime the left comes after her, anytime the media comes after her."

Ramaswamy, as in previous debates, assailed Haley at multiples times calling her "corrupt" and a "fascist neocon" who has weaponized her gender as the only woman in the primary.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley makes a point during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate presented by NewsNation at the Frank Moody Music Building University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley makes a point during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate presented by NewsNation at the Frank Moody Music Building University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Haley mostly ignored Ramaswamy's attacks, but she repeatedly called out DeSantis for "lying" about her record. She touted how she first ran as a Tea Party candidate more than a decade ago in addition to her anti-abortion views, targeting social media sites and her emphasis on parent's rights.

"I love all the attention, fellas. I thank you for that," she said.

'Obnoxious blowhard.' Bickering, bickering, bickering

The GOP contenders spent much of the two-hour debate throwing insults on each other’s intelligence, weight and backgrounds.

Christie and Ramaswamy had one of the nastier exchanges that started when the former New Jersey governor called out Ramaswamy for not defending his past statements.

"You do this every debate… you say something, all of us see it on video, we confront you on the debate stage, you say you didn't say it and then you back away,” Christie said as Ramaswamy interrupted. "I’m not done yet," Christie yelled back.

"It’s the fourth debate you will be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America," Christie added.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie makes a point during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie makes a point during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.

Ramaswamy didn’t hesitate to clap back.

“Do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off the stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this place,” he said, insulting Christie’s weight.

The two continued to talk over each other when Christie turned to defend Haley, the only woman on the stage, after Ramaswamy blasted her for claiming she could not list provinces in eastern Ukraine.

“We're now 25 minutes into this debate and he has insulted Nikki Haley's basic intelligence — not her positions — her basic intelligence,” Christie said.

The elephant not in the room: Trump's fitness

As with the three previous debates, Trump declined to attend but his dominance remains the theme in the 2024 GOP primary.

Each candidate has tried to surf the former president's wave of popularity in different ways amid his multiple indictments across four court cases.

Christie, who barely cleared the threshold to attend the debate, scolded his opponents for not taking the frontrunner to task.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a Commit to Caucus rally, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Ankeny, Iowa.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a Commit to Caucus rally, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Ankeny, Iowa.

"This 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 said.

Asked if Trump, who is 77 years old, is mentally fit for the job, DeSantis noted how "Father Time is undefeated" and that GOP voters need to consider a new generation of leadership.

"I think we need to have somebody younger. I think when you get up to 80, I don't think it's a job for that," he said.

Christie said the Florida governor dodged the core question if Trump is fit for office, but is afraid to answer.

"You're talking about him being 80 years old," Christie shouted. "Ron, is he fit?"

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.

Ramaswamy, who has touted himself as Trump 2.0, said all three of his opponents on stage "have been licking Donald Trump's boots" for money and endorsements, but are now conveniently questioning his decision-making as president.

Haley was asked about Trump calling for another so-called Muslim ban that could restrict travel to the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries. She avoided criticizing her former boss directly, but said as president she wouldn't support "a straight up Muslim ban."

"It's not about a religion," Haley said. "It's about a fact that certain countries are dangerous and are threats to us."

Parental rights: 'Very dangerous thing to do'

Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a sign during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.
Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a sign during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.

The candidates shared their views on parental rights, including gender-affirming surgeries and "bathroom bills."

Christie said he believes in less government involvement in Americans’ lives and believes parents should be empowered to make decisions about their children.

“I think it’s a very, very dangerous thing to do,” he said, referencing putting the well being of children in the hands of members of Congress or President Joe Biden.

“The minute you start to take those rights away from parents, you don't know that slippery slope, what rights are going to be taken away next,” he added.

DeSantis disagreed, citing legislation he passed in Florida that restricts gender-affirming surgeries for minors.

“This is mutilating these minors. These are irreversible procedures,” the Florida governor said.

Ramaswamy said being transgender is a “mental health disorder” and said he believes federal funds should be used to ban gender-affirming surgeries.

Haley, referenced when she was South Carolina governor, clarifying her stance on bathroom bills.

“What I have always said is boys go into boy's bathrooms, girls go into girl's bathrooms," she said, adding that transgender girls playing sports is "the women's issue of our time.”

Haley: 'Get foreign interference out of our country'

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (L) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) talk over each other as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listens during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (L) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) talk over each other as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listens during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate.

After three university presidents testified before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday and faced tough questions as their campuses have become hotbeds for protests and anti-Jewish graffiti, Haley responded to a question on how schools should balance free speech.

“It was disgusting to see what happened,” she said. "This is just as bad," she added of the pro-Hamas protests or those who agree with the genocide of Jews.

She proposed getting foreign money out of universities, including anti-Zionism in the definition of antisemitic and pushed for a ban on TikTok which she said is spreading hateful messaging.

She said for schools who do not protect students or acknowledge antisemitism, they should lose their tax-exempt status.

"We've got to get the foreign infiltration out of our country, whether it's in our schools, whether it's on our social media, whether it's we need to stop all foreign lobbying that's happening to members of Congress, and we need to start securing America again," she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 5 takeaways from GOP debate: Haley, DeSantis jockey for No. 2 spot