Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Knives Out in Tuscaloosa at Final GOP Debate of 2023

TUSCALOOSA — The four contestants not named Donald Trump resumed their running knife fight as momentum was challenged, old roles were reprised, and an almost palpable sense of desperation descended around some of the Republican presidential candidates on the University of Alabama debate stage.

Time is running short, and the moderators of the fourth contest were unsparing just five weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

He has a political machine, and he was billed as a juggernaut, so why has he floundered? “I’m sick of hearing about these polls,” a defiant Ron DeSantis fired back when asked with the first question whether he should drop out. He was “sick” of the Republicans “who aren’t willing to stand up and fight back against what the left is doing to this country.”

Supporters have long hoped for a return of “the old DeSantis,” the Florida governor who confidently chopped it up with the press and rose to prominence during the pandemic. They got their wish. That man was back on stage Wednesday, declaring himself the only candidate who could win back the White House and rattling off for proof a list of enemies he had already “beaten” from teachers unions to Anthony Fauci.

Perhaps a resurgent moment for DeSantis, the debate was a fire drill for Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador enjoys momentum in the polls and new donors with deep pockets, developments that made her a target of opportunity for rivals.

“You have other candidates up here, like Nikki Haley, she caves every time the left comes after her,” DeSantis argued out of the gate, predicting she’d also “cave” to her “Wall Street liberal donors.”

“He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him, and now they support me,” replied Haley just days removed from a New York fundraiser that was attended by Big Board heavy hitters.

When Vivek Ramaswamy accused her of being beholden to “puppet masters,” attacking her for her seat on the Boeing corporation board, Haley responded “I love Boeing. They build good commercial airplanes. They build airplanes for our Air Force. I am proud of them. They employ a lot of people in South Carolina.”

A friend of that corporation before becoming a critic of their government largesse, Haley recounted her history breaking with Boeing over the company’s reliance on tax credits and government subsidies. But the specific attacks, and her defenses, underscored a now undeniable point: Haley has emerged as a potent alternative to Trump – and she has done so at the expense of the other candidates.

“I love all the attention, fellas,” the only woman on stage said to the men on her left and right. “Thank you for that.”

Sensing that his window is closing, Ramaswamy, who polls at just 4.9% in the RealClearPolitics Average, threw haymakers, rabbit punches, and low blows at Haley. In his telling, she was “the only person more fascist than Biden,” a neo-con akin to former Vice President Dick Cheney “in lipstick,” and a warmonger “who will send your kids to die so she can have a bigger house.”

Not mentioned while in pursuit of his viral moment was the fact that Haley’s husband, an officer in the South Carolina National Guard, is currently on a one-year deployment overseas.

But turning the screws again, Ramaswamy accused Haley of playing identity politics, and he recycled one of her recent attacks on him into a one-liner. “Nikki, I don’t have a “woman problem,” you have a corruption problem,” Ramaswamy said holding aloft a prop.

“NIKKI = CORRUPT,” read the letters scrawled on his notepad. The crowd groaned and booed. Asked if she would like to respond, Haley didn’t take the bait. “No,” she said. “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

Later in the evening, Chris Christie made it clear that Ramaswamy’s insults were grating to the other candidates, even those not in his line of fire. “This is a smart accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her,” the former New Jersey governor told Ramaswamy as a visibly uncomfortable Haley stood by. And then, the only candidate with perhaps more antipathy toward the 38-year-old first-time candidate than Haley let loose.

“Let me tell you something, this is the fourth debate that you would be voted, in the first 20 minutes, as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie said while looking directly at Ramaswamy. “So shut up for a little while.”

Both Christie and Haley made it clear that they believed Ramaswamy had no business on that stage – and that they find him personally loathsome. Christie said he learned foreign policy on the job while serving as a U.S. attorney for New Jersey in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack while Ramaswamy was “running his smart-ass mouth at Harvard.” The entrepreneur with an Ivy League degree, in turn, referred to the New Jersey “Bridgegate” scandal and made a fat joke: “Chris, your version of foreign policy experience was closing a bridge from New Jersey to New York. So do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this place.”

Christie spent most of his time at this debate, as he has at the others, attempting to turn the debate into a referendum on the frontrunner. “I look at my watch now. We’re 17 minutes into this debate,” Christie said to moderator Megyn Kelly. “And except for your little speech in the beginning, we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us.”

Trump’s fitness for office was the most important issue in the race, argued Christie who polls at just 2.5% in the RCP Average and who was the only candidate on stage to plug a forthcoming book. Everything else was meaningless, said the Trump advisor-turned-“Never Trump” Republican. Without taking Trump on directly, Christie told his opponents, they were in a race for second place to a “fascist” and “bully,” a former president he likened to a Harry Potter villain.

“I’ve got these three guys who are all seemingly [trying] to compete with, you know, Voldemort, ‘He who shall not be named,’” he said. “They don’t want to talk about it.” And when DeSantis didn’t answer a question about Trump’s mental acuity to his liking, Christie pounced.

“Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis had said while offering a long answer noting that Trump was “almost 80” and calling for the “next generation of leaders.”

“The question was very direct. Is he fit, or isn’t he?” Christie interjected. “The rest of the speech is interesting but completely nonresponsive.”

“I don’t know how he would score on some test,” a somewhat beleaguered DeSantis responded, “but I do know this: We have an opportunity to nominate someone and elect someone for two terms who’s going to be spitting nails on day one and for eight years.”

And with this, for the rest of the night, Trump or “he who must not be named” in Christie’s Harry Potter-themed parlance, went essentially unscathed. So too, it seemed, did the man they are all auditioning for an opportunity to beat. The candidates on stage spent more time attacking and demeaning each other than they did critiquing President Joe Biden. 

Fresh off an exhibition debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom and sensing a threat in Haley, a more aggressive DeSantis was in evidence than the man who had appeared at the previous debates. He accused Haley of writing “a love letter to the Chinese ambassador” while trying to attract foreign business as governor of South Carolina. She hit back that he had accepted political donations from an executive of iGas USA, a refrigerant company from Florida that enjoys Chinese backing.

The pair then sparred over the emerging third rail of the GOP culture war – transgenderism, specifically minors and students in public schools.

DeSantis went first. He said of Haley’s time as South Carolina governor, “They had a bill to try to say that men shouldn’t go into girls’ bathrooms, and she killed that bill.”

Haley, who said at the time that such legislation was “unnecessary,” responded that “Ron continues to lie because he is losing.” The transgender issue, she said, hadn’t yet “exploded” and at the time the question of school bathrooms was best left to parents and principals. “When he was running for governor, and they asked him about that, he said he didn’t think bathroom bills were a good use of his time,” she added.

“You killed it. I signed it. I stood up for little girls,” DeSantis interjected referencing a Florida law he enacted that requires public school students to use bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex.

Each campaign ended the evening with standard operating procedure. They all claimed victory. For her new momentum, Haley was certainly rewarded with her fair share of incoming. DeSantis did not fade, like some of his supporters have complained of in his previous outings, and instead demonstrated the pugilism that made him famous during the pandemic. Christie, resuming his role as brawler, had his best debate of the campaign. Ramaswamy again attacked Haley.  

Ultimately, the debate may answer a simple question: Do barbs and made-for-Twitter burns delivered by candidates not named Donald Trump actually win over voters? An early answer will come in Iowa. In the meantime, most in the media seemed eager to crown the moderators.

The debate was hosted by NewsNation and was billed as a test of new media. Along with Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Vargas of the scrappy new cable news network and Eliana Johnson of the conservative Washington Free Beacon sat behind the moderator’s desk. In an interview with RealClearPolitics prior to the debate, Kelly likened the role of moderator to that of “a bad dinner host,” who introduces uncomfortable topics that will divide guests at the table. She also promised to bring “a cattle prod.”

Conflict, Kelly promised, would be on the menu. And even the New York Times, which questioned whether journalists with conservative credentials could deliver, conceded, “There was nothing chummy about Wednesday night.”

The moderators did not, however, steal the spotlight. “If the three of us could shrink into obscurity that night, it would be a total win. If it’s just all about the three of them, or four of them, and not at all about the three of us, that would be great,” Kelly told RCP two weeks before the debate. And the moderators did recede, according to plan, just long enough for the candidates to cut themselves to pieces. 

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.