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Haley draws fire from rivals in GOP presidential debate, as Christie calls Trump ‘unfit’

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Haley draws fire from rivals in GOP presidential debate, as Christie calls Trump ‘unfit’

Dec 07, 2023 | 12:14 am ET
By Jacob Fischler Robin Opsahl
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Haley draws fire from rivals in GOP presidential debate, as Christie calls Trump ‘unfit’
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Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The four presidential hopefuls squared off during the fourth Republican primary debate without current frontrunner and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has declined to participate in any of the previous debates. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Half of the four Republican presidential candidates on a debate stage in Alabama on Wednesday night focused their attacks on former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who’s vying for the prized second place in the nominating contest.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy teamed up early in the debate to repeatedly hit Haley on issues including transgender health care, support for Ukraine’s and Israel’s war efforts and her backing from corporate and wealthy donors.

Haley welcomed the focus.

“​​I love all the attention, fellas,” she said. “Thank you for that.”

The extended exchange that defined the debate’s first half-hour segment — and reemerged throughout the two-hour event hosted by NewsNation — frustrated the fourth candidate on stage, Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor has made criticism of former President Donald Trump, the far-and-away leading candidate in the field, the cornerstone of his campaign. Trump, as in the previous three debates sanctioned by the Republican National Committee, refused to take part.

Christie criticized the others on stage at the event at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, all of whom are polling better than he is, for not taking on Trump. He bemoaned in his first remarks of the evening that Haley, DeSantis and Ramaswamy were too focused on each other and hadn’t even mentioned Trump.

“For us to go 17 minutes without discussing the guy who has all those gaudy (polling) numbers you talked about is ridiculous,” Christie told the moderators, who’d cited Trump’s large lead in the polls.

“The fact of the matter is he is unfit to be president,” he added.

Trump garners nearly 60% of GOP voter support, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average.

Trump instead appeared on a Fox News town hall Tuesday. Host Sean Hannity asked Trump, who was central to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, to dispel concerns he wouldn’t respect democratic norms in his second term.

Trump responded that he wouldn’t be a dictator, “except for Day 1,” when he implied he would exercise extreme powers to control the border and expand fossil fuel development.

“We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling,” he said. “After that, I’m not a dictator.”

Haley in crosshairs

Former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Gov. Ron DeSantis gesture from behind two lecterns.
Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (L) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The four presidential hopefuls squared off during the fourth Republican primary debate without current frontrunner and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has declined to participate in any of the previous debates. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Haley was the target of attacks by DeSantis and Ramaswamy in their first remarks of the debate, as they accused her of being in the pocket of Wall Street and criticized her foreign policy positions.

Although Trump leads the field by a wide margin, the race for second place has been tightening for months, as Haley’s poll numbers have improved largely at the expense of DeSantis. While DeSantis still leads Haley in most national polls, the two were tied at 16% in a recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa survey.

Haley has edged ahead of DeSantis in recent New Hampshire and South Carolina polls, and got a high-profile endorsement from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-affiliated PAC.

Ramaswamy also criticized Haley’s backing from Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the American-based multinational investment management firm, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, whom he called “George Soros Junior,” as well as criticizing her previous position on the board of Boeing after leaving the United Nations.

The entrepreneur said that an “establishment” candidate like Haley will change her policy positions to align with these large corporations supporting her campaign.

Haley denied the accusation, saying that these backers support her because of her positions, not because she changed them. The former U.N. ambassador pointed to her decision to leave Boeing after the business sought a “corporate bailout” following the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision she did not agree with.

“There’s nothing to what he’s saying,” Haley responded. “And in terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous.”

DeSantis also criticized Haley’s relationship with multinational corporations, saying that she would support businesses like BlackRock that want to use “economic power to impose a left-wing agenda on this country.”

He pointed to a Florida law he signed banning environmental, social and governance, or ESG, investing strategies — when a firm considers non-financial environmental, social and government factors when making investments — for the state’s public investments.

“The next president of the United States needs to be able to go to that office on day one and end ESG,” DeSantis said. “And the fact of the matter is, we know from her history, Nikki will cave to those big donors when it counts.”

Social media and national security

The two candidates also criticized Haley for saying that she would require identity verification by name for people posting on social media.

Haley said on Fox News in November that she would require social media companies to share their algorithms with the U.S. government, and that she would require name verification to address “national security” concerns with Russian, Iranian and Chinese bots.

The former South Carolina governor defended her comments on the debate stage, saying that her position was focused on getting rid of foreign influences on social media, not on restricting American rights.

“As a mom, do I think that social media would be more civil if we went and had people’s names next to that?” Haley said. “Yes, I do think that, because I think we’ve got too much cyberbullying. I think we’ve got child pornography and all of those things. But having said that, I never said government should go and require anyone’s names.”

DeSantis and Ramaswamy repeatedly went back to criticisms of Haley throughout the debate. Ramaswamy, who has battled with the former ambassador since the first debate in August, held up a piece of paper with “NIKKI = CORRUPT” written on it.

He also compared her to Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman who is a social media personality, and said Haley was using “identity politics” to advance her campaign.

Haley declined to respond to his criticisms later in the debate, saying, “It’s not worth my time.”

Christie was the only candidate to not attack Haley on the debate stage, instead defending her against Ramaswamy’s onslaught.

“Nikki and I disagree on some issues,” Christie said. “But I’ll tell you this: I’ve known her for 12 years — which is longer than he’s even started to vote in the Republican primary — and while we disagree about some issues, and we disagree about who should be president of the United States, what we don’t disagree on is this is a smart, accomplished woman and you should stop insulting her.”

Though he defended Haley, the former New Jersey governor went after DeSantis for not directly answering questions posed by the debate moderators, like whether Trump was mentally fit to serve as president, as he would be older when taking office for his second term than President Joe Biden was in 2021.

“Is he fit, or isn’t he?” Christie said. “I’ll concede: You’re fit, Ron, you’re a new generation … This is my problem with my three colleagues, they’re afraid to offend.”

Christie continues anti-Trump crusade, mostly alone

Christie also kept up a relentless focus on Trump, saying that the former president’s comment about being a dictator was not a joke.

“It’s completely predictable,” he said. “He’s made it very clear if there’s no mystery to what he wants to do.”

“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, and every one of these policies that he’s talking about are about pursuing a plan of retribution,” he added.

Christie predicted that Trump would be unable to vote for himself because he’d be convicted of federal felonies before Election Day.

Trump faces federal charges in two cases and state charges in two others. All criminal charges are scheduled to go to trial next year.

DeSantis, who was an ally of Trump as a U.S. House member and received the then-president’s endorsement in his gubernatorial race, and Haley, who was ambassador to the United Nations during Trump’s term, took some shots at Trump, but declined opportunities to go harder on the former president.

Asked if Trump was unfit for office because of his age, DeSantis called for a new generation of leadership, but didn’t answer directly.

“Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said. “The idea that we’re going to put someone up there that’s almost 80 and there’s going to be no effects from that? We all know that that’s not true.”

Christie challenged DeSantis to answer the yes-or-no question.

“The rest of the speech is interesting, but completely non-responsive,” he said.

Haley praised Trump’s record on trade, but said his governing style was unproductive.

“We have to stop the chaos,” she said. “But you can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos, and that’s what Donald Trump gives us. My approach is different: no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”

Disagreements on Ukraine, Israel aid

Foreign policy continued to provide an area of disagreement, especially between Haley and Ramaswamy.

Ramaswamy, who has aired isolationist views in previous debates, renewed his proposal to seek a peace agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, criticizing Haley for not knowing the names of the Ukrainian provinces she wanted to protect.

“Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom,” he said.

Christie jumped in to defend Haley, blasting Ramaswamy’s pugilistic debate style.

“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” he said.

Ramaswamy also said that as president, he would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States is “rooting for” Israel to defeat the terror group Hamas, but would not be involved in the war.

“As your next president, my sole moral duty is to you, the people of this country,” he said.

DeSantis countered that U.S. citizens were among the victims in Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel.

Haley also argued for a more robust role in global conflicts, saying the U.S. should support Ukraine, Israel and — potentially — Taiwan against an alliance of Russia, Iran and China.

“There’s a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis,” Haley said. “Because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins.”

Transgender issues

The issue of allowing minors to transition, either socially or medically, was also a hot topic on the debate stage.

DeSantis and Ramaswamy both called for banning gender-affirming surgeries for transgender youth, even with parental permission. Minors should not be allowed to get procedures like mastectomies, hormone replacement therapy and in rare cases, genital surgeries, the two candidates said, with DeSantis calling the medical interventions “mutilation.”

Moderators asked Christie to defend his position on transgender youth procedures as well as allowing students to socially transition — use a different name or pronouns than what they were given at birth — at school without parental permission.

Christie denied claims that he did not support requiring parental notification if a child uses a different name or pronouns at school, but said he would not support restricting parents’ rights to make choices for their minor children.

“Every once in a while, parents are going to make decisions that we disagree with,” Christie said. “But 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.”

DeSantis interrupted Christie, saying that parents “do not have the right to abuse your kids.”

“This is mutilating these minors, these are irreversible procedures,” DeSantis said. “… I signed legislation in Florida banning the mutilation of minors because it is wrong. We cannot allow this to happen in this country.”

The Florida governor said he believes Christie has an “honest position” on the topic of transgender youth transitioning, but also criticized Haley for not signing into law a so-called “bathroom bill,” banning use of gendered facilities like school restrooms and locker rooms for people of the opposite biological sex, regardless of gender identity or legal gender.

Haley said that her position has changed on the issue of bathroom use by transgender people since she was governor of South Carolina.

“When the bathroom situation came up, we had maybe a handful of kids that were dealing with an issue, and I said, ‘We don’t need to bring government into this — but boys go into boys bathrooms, girls go into girls bathrooms, and if anyone else has an issue, they use a private bathroom,’” she said. “Now 10 years later, we see that this issue has exploded.”

She also claimed DeSantis was being hypocritical, claiming the Florida governor said on the campaign trail in 2018 that bathroom bills were not “a good use of his time.”

“I signed a bathroom bill in Florida, so that’s obviously not true,” DeSantis responded. “… You killed it, I signed it. I stood up for little girls, you didn’t do it.”

DeSantis also said he had spoken with South Carolina state legislators who told him that there were transgender women going into women’s facilities in the state at the time of the legislation’s proposal. Haley said that claim was false and that “South Carolinians never allowed that to happen.”

She also pointed to her opposition to transgender women competing in women’s sports, an issue she has referenced often on the campaign trail.

“Biological boys shouldn’t be playing in girls’ sports, and I will do everything I can to stop that because it’s a women’s issue of our time,” Haley said.