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Only four debaters remained in the final sanctioned debate of the 2024 Republican primary, held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They were sometimes almost overshadowed by unusually aggressive moderators (an all-female group including Megyn Kelly of SiriusXM, Eliana Johnson of the right-wing Washington Free Beacon, and Elizabeth Vargas of the relentlessly self-promoting sponsor NewsNation), who let them know before the debate that they’d have lots of opportunity to criticize the absent front-runner Donald Trump. There was some of that, though predictably most of it was from the openly anti-Trump candidate Chris Christie. The more notable dynamic was the pounding administered to the fast-rising Nikki Haley by Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.
From the jump, both these gentlemen tried to turn one of Haley’s most notable recent accomplishments — the stampeding of well-heeled Republican Establishment donors to the South Carolinian — into an indictment reflecting Haley’s corporate corruption (Ramaswamy’s take) or of her subservience to crypto-Democrats and China shills (DeSantis’s angle). Each of them pursued their favored critique of Haley for the rest of the event.
Ramaswamy continued the over-the-top attacks on Haley that led her to call him “scum” during the last encounter. He labeled her a “fascist” for calling for disclosure of social-media identities and at one point held up a handwritten sign that read: “Nikki Corrupt.” Deploying an old debate moderator’s trick, the tech tyro challenged Haley to name three provinces in eastern Ukraine, and wouldn’t really let her give it a try; he later accused her of running a campaign totally based on identity politics, which is a deadly insult in Republican discourse these days. It got so bad that Christie leapt in to defend Haley and call Ramaswamy an “obnoxious blowhard” and a “smart-ass.”
DeSantis, on the other hand, showed the monomaniacal focus of a candidate who was speaking not to the country but to his target audience of hard-core conservatives in Iowa, where he’s trying to hold off an existential threat from Haley. He accused Haley of being soft on China, soft on transgender minors, and soft on anyone her wealthy Establishment donors and allies want to protect from DeSantis’s righteous wrath. A DeSantis ad that ran during the debate described Haley as the stooge of the same “globalist bankers” who backed Hillary Clinton.
If he was watching, the Trump likely enjoyed the spectacle of Haley trying to parry these attacks from the two candidates beside her on the stage. But Trump received a few shots as well. Haley and DeSantis both repeated their past criticism of runaway federal spending during Trump’s presidency. DeSantis went further; he has now developed a pretty extensive rap suggesting that the 45th president wasn’t really MAGA enough (he didn’t finish the wall, didn’t fire Anthony Fauci, didn’t fire FBI director Christopher Wray, etc.). He also carefully argued that Trump might be too old.
But it was Christie, of course, who really went to town on Trump, and particularly his recent boast that he’d be a dictator for “at least a day.” Calling him an “angry, bitter man” bent on retribution, Christie denounced his rivals for lacking the courage to take on the former president, and finally drew boos from the crowd by predicting a criminally convicted Trump wouldn’t be able to vote for himself in November 2024.
Beyond the interpersonal dynamics, all the candidates cooperated to remind viewers of the consensus extremism of their party. They all are upset at the idea that anyone could have second thoughts about the way Israel is conducting its war with Hamas. They stumbled over each other in demanding military action on the southern border and the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants. And none of them seemed to have any idea how to address rising living expenses other than by cutting government spending.
Who won the debate, if anyone? The two candidates who best fulfilled their mission in this debate were clearly Christie and DeSantis. Unfortunately for the former New Jersey governor, his support is absolutely capped at far less than what he needs by his hostility to Trump. DeSantis succeeded in his effort to make it clear that no one in the field can possibly outflank him on the right, which is probably reassuring to the people he’s trying to get to caucus for him in Iowa. His shout-out to Calvin Coolidge as the president who most inspired him was extraordinarily on brand.
Ramaswamy’s conduct has more than ever disqualified him as a serious candidate. But he contributed to a shaky night for Haley, who was on the defensive far too much for this carnivorous party, and was fighting sky-high expectations based on her earlier debate performances.
As with all the Republican debates, the ultimate winner was probably Trump, who is now just a few weeks away from what is likely to be a sweep of early states that ends the candidacies of all the people on the stage in Tuscaloosa. Certainly no one has soared from this field of rivals to give him a serious scare. And time really is running out.