The fourth Republican debate of the 2024 United States presidential election boasted chaotic moments and personal attacks, as candidates tussled to present themselves as viable alternatives to former President Donald Trump.
Trump, the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination, skipped the debate once again, but his candidacy, political record and legal woes were targets of recurring criticism on Wednesday.
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The event, hosted by the NewsNation channel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, came six weeks ahead of the first primary contest: the Iowa caucuses. Trump, however, is already leading in the state by a comfortable margin.
Still, four candidates arrived on Wednesday’s debate stage in an attempt to chip away at his lead. They included Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN envoy Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Familiar themes, including the war in Gaza, immigration, China and healthcare for transgender youth, dominated the conversation.
Here are five key takeaways from the fourth Republican debate:
Haley faces attacks
The former UN envoy has seen her campaign surge after she received the endorsement of the Koch network, a deep-pocketed and influential right-wing group.
Some polls now show DeSantis and Haley tied in second place for the Republican nod. So it was no surprise that DeSantis, who has long been considered Trump’s greatest challenger, came out swinging at Haley.
Early on, he questioned her conservative credentials and criticised her for suggesting that parents should be able to get transgender healthcare for their children. The two candidates went on to trade accusations of being soft on China.
Ramaswamy took it from there. He attacked Haley throughout the debate, painting her as a corrupt neoconservative who is beholden to wealthy donors.
It’s no mystery why the establishment is propping up @NikkiHaley & why her Super PAC puppet masters are now bidding for her services again:
+ Her family income *tripled* in her first 5 years after her first election in 2004
+ Took hundreds of thousands $ in gifts while governor… pic.twitter.com/lzrY9myxBe
— Vivek Ramaswamy (@VivekGRamaswamy) December 7, 2023
At one point Christie came to Haley’s defence, calling Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America”.
But the Ohio-born businessman was not deterred. Instead, he doubled down on his attacks, repeatedly questioning Haley’s support for aid to Ukraine.
“You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neo-con,” he said, referring to a former Republican vice president who pioneered the post-9/11 wars.
Ramaswamy’s attacks did not stop there. He later held up a notepad that read “Nikki = corrupt”.
Haley was quick to dismiss the barb. “It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” she said, and the debate moved on.
Trump gets heat from rivals
Christie resumed his role as the most prominent Trump critic on the debate stage, but while none of his rivals matched his zeal, some still took their own modest shots at the former president.
Haley, in particular, criticised government spending under the Trump administration, which approved a massive COVID-19 economic relief package in 2020. She also described Trump as an agent of chaos.
“We have to stop the chaos, but you can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos,” Haley said. “And that’s what Donald Trump gives us. My approach is different: no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”
For his part, DeSantis, who burst onto the national scene with his stern defence of Trump, questioned the former president’s electability, suggesting he may be too old to serve in the White House at age 77.
He also argued that Trump did not deliver on his 2016 election promises.
“He didn’t clean up the swamp. He said he was going to drain it. He did not drain it. He said he was going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. We don’t have the wall,” DeSantis said.
Trump is leading the race by as many as 40 percentage points, according to some polls.
Support for Israel
The presidential hopefuls voiced staunch support for Israel in its war in Gaza, which has killed more than 16,000 Palestinians.
If presented with a sound plan by military aides, Christie said he would not hesitate to send US soldiers to rescue American captives in Gaza, who were abducted by Hamas during the October 7 attack.
“If they had bandwidth [and] showed me that we could get them out safely, you’re damn right, I’d send the American army in there to get our people home and get them home now,” Christie said.
Despite President Joe Biden’s unwavering support for Israel, DeSantis accused the US administration of restricting Israel’s war efforts.
“Joe Biden will say they support Israel, and then they do nothing but try to kneecap them every step of the way,” DeSantis said.
It is not clear what he was referring to. The White House has said it is not drawing any red lines to limit Israel’s military actions, and Biden is seeking a $14bn aid package to the US ally.
Haley called for banning TikTok partly over content critical of Israel. “For every 30 minutes that someone watches TikTok every day, they become 17 percent more anti-Semitic, more pro-Hamas,” she said.
The former ambassador added that she would push a new definition of anti-Semitism that would include anti-Zionism.
“If you don’t think that Israel has a right to exist, that is anti-Semitism. We will change the definition, so that every government, every school has to acknowledge the definition for what it is,” she said.
Palestinian rights advocates, including many progressive Jewish groups, have long warned against conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. They argue it could curb legitimate criticism of the Israeli government without helping the fight against bigotry.
Ramaswamy reiterated his support for Israel but said that the US ally should be able to defend itself without American intervention.
Tough talk on the border, migration
The candidates were largely in agreement on the need to curb unauthorised arrivals at the southern US border.
DeSantis said he would treat drug cartels at the southern US border as “foreign terrorist organisations” and deal with them militarily.
“We need to build a wall across the southern border,” he added, saying that he would pay for it by taxing remittances foreign workers send from the US to their home countries.
Haley said she would ramp up the deportation of migrants who entered the country without authorisation during the Biden presidency.
“My parents came here legally. They put in the time; they put in the price. They are offended by those that are coming illegally. We can’t let them skip the line,” she said.
For his part, Ramaswamy promoted the racist conspiracy theory that Democrats are looking to replace white voters by allowing more immigrants into the country.
“The great replacement theory is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory but a basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform,” he said.
China in the crosshairs
The candidates took turns proposing tough policies against China and accusing one another of being weak on Beijing.
Ramaswamy blamed China for the fentanyl crisis in the US and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We also have to hold them accountable with every financial leverage that we have available,” he said.
“If we’re willing to stand with a spine, China will absolutely have to fold because they’re in a tougher spot than we are,” Ramaswamy added.
DeSantis also emphasised Washington’s competition with Beijing.
“Deterring China’s ambitions is the number one national security task that I will do as president, and we will succeed,” he said.
“The 21st century needs to be an American century. We cannot let it be a Chinese century.”