Candidates go after one another at lively fourth debate skipped by Trump

Washington: With the Iowa caucuses rapidly approaching, a shrinking field of Republican White House hopefuls gathered Wednesday in Alabama for the fourth presidential debate.

As usual, former President Donald Trump, who is dominating the GOP primary, didn’t appear. Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued their effort to gain a sliver of the spotlight in the race.

Here are some takeaways from the final primary debate of 2023.

Fighting Trump for once 


The front-runner in the Republican primary has no end of vulnerabilities. He faces 91 criminal charges and just the night before repeatedly refused to rule out abusing power if he returns to office.

But, as has been the pattern, Trump was ignored during much of the debate. There was one great exception in the second hour, when the moderators asked Christie about Trump. The onetime New Jersey governor complained that his three primary rivals have been silent about the threats Trump presents to democracy.

“You want to know why these poll numbers are where they are?” Christie asked. “Because folks like these three people on this stage want to make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”

Christie then began jousting with DeSantis, who confined his criticism of Trump to the former president’s age and failure to achieve all of his agenda in his first term. “Is he fit to be president or isn’t he?” Christie asked. “Is he fit? Ron, Ron? He’s afraid to answer.”

Ramaswamy accused his rivals of all “licking Donald Trump’s boots,” but then proceeded to argue the Jan. 6,2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job” — hardly distancing himself from the former president and his penchant for lies and misinformation.

“Nikki = corrupt,” Ramaswamy writes on notepad

Signs aren’t allowed during debates, but Ramaswamy used a legal pad at his podium to write a note criticizing Haley.

Ramaswamy held up a handwritten sign reading “Nikki = corrupt,” a characterization he repeated during debate critique of her association with aerospace giant Boeing Co., among other issues.

Ramaswamy had been asked if he questioned Haley’s Christian conviction after she was raised in the Sikh faith and converted.

All four candidates had notebooks on their podiums and were seen writing notes as soon as they walked on stage. It wasn’t clear when Ramaswamy had written the message.

Asked if she would like to respond after Ramaswamy invoked her name, Haley said, “No, it’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

Christie defends Haley against Ramaswamy’s attacks

They are facing off for the GOP nomination, but Christie has come to Haley’s defense during his own debate screed against Ramaswamy.

After Ramaswamy repeatedly railed against Haley for what he characterized as her inability to name some of Ukraine’s provinces, Christie called Haley “a smart accomplished woman” and said Ramaswamy “should stop insulting her.”

Christie also said Ramaswamy would be voted “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”

Christie and Haley were both elected governors of their respected states in 2010 and were friends during Christie’s time chairing the Republican Governors Association.

Haley turned to Christie and seemingly uttered a “thank you” when he defended her.

Is Trump fit to be president? ‘Father time is undefeated,’ DeSantis says


DeSantis sidestepped questions about whether Trump is “fit” to be president but said he thinks the former president, is 77, is too old to be president.

“Father time is undefeated,” DeSantis said, adding: “I think we need to have somebody younger.”

The 45-year-old also said a candidate needed to be able to serve two terms, which Trump would not be able to do.

Christie then repeatedly tried to get DeSantis to answer whether he thought Trump was mentally fit, leading to extended cross-talk and bickering between the two.

DeSantis said of Trump: “I don’t know how he would score on a test.”

The Florida governor said he did not think Trump “is as bad as Biden,” who is 81, but said, “I do think that over a four-year period, it is not a job for somebody that’s pushing 80. We need somebody that’s younger.”

If rivals can’t take on Trump, they shouldn’t be president, says Christie


Christie is doubling down on his criticism that his fellow Republican presidential candidates are too timid to take on Trump and his legal troubles.

The former New Jersey governor said after Wednesday’s debate that the other three candidates on stage in Tuscaloosa were “pretending we’re the only four candidates in the race.”

Christie noted that Haley remained silent through an extended discussion of Trump’s fitness for office, given multiple pending indictments on charges stemming from his behavior in office and after leaving the White House.

If Haley, DeSantis and others are afraid to take on Trump, Christie said they aren’t up to being head of state and sitting across the table from other world leaders.

But he quipped that “at least the moderators asked some Trump questions,” unlike some previous debates.

Fiery exchange follows questions about Hamas and Iran

Questions about how to handle the conflicts with Hamas and Iran opened a fiery exchange about the candidates’ foreign policy experience and smarts.

Asked whether they would send U.S. troops to rescue American hostages held in Gaza, Christie answered, “Damn right, I would.” DeSantis didn’t appear to answer the question directly.

Ramaswamy, asked about his position that the U.S. shouldn’t be lending military support to Israel, acknowledged his policy on that was “a little bit different.”

“Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself without the U.S., U.N. or EU second-guessing its decisions,” he said.

Ramaswamy, who is often faulted for his lack of foreign policy experience, then turned the focus to Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom,” Ramaswamy said. He followed up with a challenge to Haley to name three provinces in eastern Ukraine, prompting Christie to rebuke him for being rude.

Haley did not bite on the Ukraine-province challenge.

Fact-checking Haley on terrorists coming through southern border

While discussing terrorist threats, Haley says Iran knows “the easiest way” to enter the United States is through the southern border.

But reports of terrorists entering the United States by land from Mexico are almost unheard of.

Alex Nowrasteh of the pro-immigration Cato Institute documented nine foreign-born terrorists who entered the United States illegally from 1975 through last year. Three entered Mexico in 1984 when they were 5 years old or younger and were convicted of plotting to attack Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 2007. The other six entered through Canada.

Iran has not been linked to funding terrorist attacks in the United States, like the 2001 strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Images courtesy of The Hill, NBC News, The Mint, HT and Axios

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