Less than six weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses, President Donald Trump’s four chief rivals for the Republican presidential nomination once again met on the debate stage. The event provided the attendees what may be one of the last opportunities before votes start being cast to upset the race, which the former President has dominated for months as he polls ahead of his opponents by as much as fifty points.
The candidates onstage for Wednesday’s debate hosted by NewsNation were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a participant in the last debate, suspended his presidential campaign on November 12. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who failed to qualify for the last two debates, dropped out of the race this week. The absence of Trump—and the departures of Scott and Burgum—have intensified the focus on what appears for now to be a battle for second place.
These were some of the highlights of the fourth Republican presidential debate.
Knives out for Trump
The candidates’ attacks on Trump were more urgent than in previous debates as he maintains a commanding lead in the polls heading into Iowa.
Once again, Christie assumed the mantle of Trump’s biggest critic, calling him “Voldemort” and accusing the other candidates of shying away from discussing the former President. “We have these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said.
“The truth needs to be told,” he continued. “He is unfit to be President. There is no bigger issue in this race.”
In one of his sharpest criticisms of Trump thus far, DeSantis suggested Trump was unfit and too old for the presidency, saying, “Father Time is undefeated; the idea that we’re going to put someone up there that’s almost 80 and there’s going to be no effects for that, we all know that’s not true.”
“The Democrats want him to be the nominee,” DeSantis continued, before arguing that Trump didn’t deliver on his promises as president. “I think we need to have somebody younger… He didn’t even fire Dr. Fauci. He didn’t fire Christopher Wray. 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 the wall and have Mexico pay for it. We don’t have the wall. He did say in 2016 he’d have the largest deportation program in history. He deported less than Barack Obama did.”
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Haley also went after Trump, saying he allowed fentanyl to continue to come into the U.S. from China and “allowed the Chinese infiltration for them to buy up farmland, to put money in our universities, and to continue to do things that were harmful for America.” She also blamed him for the challenges young people face in buying homes. “As much as everybody wants to talk about how Donald Trump had a good economy, $9 trillion in debt he did just in four years,” she said. “And we’re all paying the price of that, including those mortgage prices.”
“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.”
Only Ramaswamy left Trump alone. “All three of them have been licking Donald Trump’s boots for years for money and endorsements,” he said of his rivals.
Haley’s high-dollar donors under scrutiny
Haley, who has seen a rise in the polls and a boost from wealthy Wall Street donors, responded to the suggestion from moderator Megyn Kelly that she is “too tight with the banks and the billionaires to win over the GOP’s working class base, which mostly wants to break the system, not elect someone beholden to it.”
“When it comes to these corporate people that want to suddenly support us, we’ll take it,” Haley said. “But I don’t ask them what their policies are. They ask me what my policies are.” She said some donors dislike her tough-on-China approach, the fact that she’s signed anti-abortion bills, or her opposition to corporate bailouts.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy teamed up against Haley to attack her for meeting with Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, who they said is at the forefront of the ESG effort—an investing strategy that focuses on environmental, social and corporate governance. “Nikki is meeting with all these people,” DeSantis said. “They want to use economic power to impose a left-wing agenda on this country. They want basically to change society without having to go through the constitutional process.” Ramaswamy called her “corrupt.”
Haley said her rivals are “just jealous” of the growing list of wealthy donors supporting her campaign: “They wish that they were supporting them.”
Ramaswamy vs. everybody
Ramaswamy continued to play the gadfly onstage during the fourth debate, hurling a number of insults and personal attacks at his opponents. He suggested that Haley is fascist, eliciting boos from the crowd, and later accused the former ambassador to the United Nations of not knowing the names of Ukrainian provinces.
The exchange on foreign policy experience led to an intense back-and-forth between Ramaswamy and Christie, who defended Haley. “He has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence—not her positions,” Christie said of Ramaswamy’s attacks, saying he would win the vote for “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
Christie also took issue with Ramaswamy’s approach to resolving the Ukraine conflict, characterizing it as ceding all seized territory to Russia and relying on President Vladimir Putin’s assurance of not forming ties with China. Ramaswamy interjected, saying that Christie misrepresented his position on Russia-Ukraine, prompting Christie to accuse him of inconsistency on various issues.
“Chris, your version of foreign policy experience was closing a bridge from New Jersey to New York,” Ramaswamy said. “So do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this place.”
Later, Ramaswamy was asked about his Hindu faith and past criticism of Haley for converting to Christianity. He said he often refers to her as Nimrata—her given name—because she does not pronounce his name correctly, before criticizing identity politics as “a symptom of a deeper cancer in American life.”
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He continued his attacks against her: “Nikki Haley’s campaign launch video sounded like a woke Dylan Mulvaney Bud Light ad, talking about how she would kick in heels. At the first debate, she said that only a woman can get this job done… Nikki, I don’t have a woman problem. You have a corruption problem and I think that that’s what people need to know. Nikki is corrupt. This is a woman who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house.” As the crowd booed, Haley declined to respond, saying, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”
DeSantis defends lagging campaign and attacks Haley
Asked about his inability to consolidate the non-Trump vote despite high spending and initial momentum, DeSantis said, “We have a great idea in America that the voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters. I’m sick of hearing about these polls.”
“We’re going to earn this nomination,” he promised. He then slammed Haley, who many GOP insiders say is quickly supplanting DeSantis as the most viable Trump alternative. His attacks further highlighted the rivalry showcased at the last debate.
“She caves any time the left comes after her, any time the media comes after her,” DeSantis said. Haley later defended herself, saying that DeSantis “continues to lie about my record.”
The Haley pile-on from DeSantis and Ramaswamy in particular helped cement the idea that she’s surging before Iowa. “I love all the attention, fellas—thank you for that,” Haley said.
Transgender care and parental rights
One of the policy debates that became most heated Wednesday night centered on whether transgender teenagers should be able to take hormones or have surgeries that align them with their stated gender.
Christie defended his stance that the government should not ban treatments that would allow minors to transition, suggesting that parents should be empowered to make decisions for children instead.
“As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” Desantis argued back, earning loud cheers. “This is mutilating these minors.”
Ramaswamy espoused a similar view. “Transgenderism is a mental health disorder,” he said, repeating a frequent campaign talking point and expressing his support for “banning genital mutilation or chemical castration.”
Antisemitism on college campuses
Asked about the rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, Haley said that it was “disgusting to see what happened” at a hearing before the House Education committee on Tuesday, when the presidents of multiple major universities equivocated about disciplining students who call for the genocide of Jews. Haley claimed that “if this had been the KKK that was doing protests on those campuses, every one of those college presidents would have been up in arms.”
She added that the government should get rid of foreign money from universities and criticized Joe Biden for not including anti-Zionism in the definition of antisemitism. “If you don’t think that Israel has a right to exist, that is antisemitic,” she said. “We will change the definition so that every government, every school has to acknowledge the definition for what it is.” She also pledged to take away the tax exempt status of universities that don’t acknowledge antisemitism and protect students.