By Jonathan Weisman
A two-hour debate between four Republican presidential hopefuls Wednesday night played out like a battle between two tag-team wrestling duos. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy relentlessly attacked Nikki Haley, while Haley tried to fight back with the help of the fourth candidate on the stage, Chris Christie.
The debate, held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is likely to be the last Republican National Committee-sanctioned meeting before the Iowa caucuses next month. The audience was probably small — the debate was aired on a cable news newcomer, NewsNation, and The CW network — but the event came at a critical time in the race. Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations, is neck and neck with DeSantis, the governor of Florida, for second place and the right to claim the mantle of the most viable alternative to former President Donald Trump.
As the debate unspooled, the overall imperative appeared to be thwarting Haley’s rise.
DeSantis accused her repeatedly of cozying up to China when she led the state of South Carolina and of being tolerant of children who identified as transgender. Ramaswamy was more brutal, calling her a “fascist” and saying she was corrupt because of ties to Wall Street and military contractors.
“I love the attention, fellas,” Haley quipped after a barrage early on.
But for a candidate who emerged from the last two debates with all the momentum, Haley struggled on her fourth go-round. She tried to make the case that she was the most electable candidate but was forced to spend considerable time on defense.
“You can’t replace Democrat chaos with Republican chaos, and that’s what you get with Donald Trump,” she said, promising instead, “no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”
Her retorts in earlier debates provided those showdowns’ most memorable moments. This time, her toughest response to DeSantis was “Ron has continued to lie because he’s losing.”
Instead, she appeared to rely on Christie, a former governor of New Jersey, for help, and he did deliver it, accusing Ramaswamy of smearing the only woman on the stage and calling him “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
But leaning on Christie, whose criticism of Trump has made him exceptionally unpopular among Republican voters, may not help Haley in the long run.
It did help Christie pursue his own agenda: taking down Trump and hectoring the other candidates to join his efforts. He ended the night by warning that Trump would be convicted of crimes and deprived of his right to vote by Election Day 2024, and that Republican denial about Trump would ensure a second term for President Joe Biden.
“This is an angry, bitter man,” Christie said of Trump, his former friend and confidant. “Failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending he is a victim, empowers him.” He suggested that the other candidates’ timidity explained why Trump holds such a commanding lead in Republican primary polling.
The Alabama audience booed.