DemDaily. Countdown to Iowa. The Fourth GOP Debate

December 8, 2023

A winnowing field of GOP presidential candidates took to the debate stage last night for the fourth and final time before the January 15 Iowa Caucuses.

On Stage, four of the now six contenders -- including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- faced off in another raucous exchange at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

To qualify for the fourth Republican presidential primary debate, candidates had to poll at least 6% in two national polls or 6% in one national poll and two early state polls; have a minimum of 80,000 unique donors, with 200 unique donors in at least 20 states or territories; and sign a pledge committing to support the eventual nominee.

As with previous debates, former President and current primary frontrunner Donald Trump declined to participate, opting instead to attend a fundraiser for one of his super PACs, MAGA Inc. The sixth remaining GOP primary candidate, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, did not qualify for the debate.

The debate was moderated by former Fox News commentator and radio talk-show host Megyn Kelly, Washington Free Beacon Editor-in-Chief Eliana Johnson, and NewsNation anchor Elizabeth Vargas.

Kelly opened up with a challenge to the contenders' electability as Trump "is nearly 50 points ahead of all of you in the national polls and 29 points ahead in Iowa where the GOP caucuses are less than six weeks away."

With flagging poll numbers, DeSantis was on the defensive, but pointed to his landslide 59% reelection in 2022. He made an impassioned plea for "strong Republicans" who are willing "to fight back against what the left is doing to this country," accusing Haley of "caving" to the left, the media and donors.

DeSantis and Haley also clashed over who was tougher on transgender rights, including banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and bathroom bills. Ramaswamy said "transgenderism is a mental health disorder" and identity politics are "a symptom of a deeper cancer in American life."

Haley, who has turned strong debate performances into momentum -- surpassing DeSantis for a distant second place in some early primary states -- was unquestionably the target of night. After reciting off her long list of conservative credentials, Haley touted her recent endorsement from Americans For Prosperity, the political arm of the ultra-right Koch network.

Ramaswamy wasted no time attacking Haley, accusing her of selling out to donors and corporate interests that have made her wealthy -- holding up pad of paper with the words "Nikki and Corrupt."

DeSantis also criticized Haley for accepting money from "Wall Street liberal donors who make money in China."

Haley countered that her rivals were "just jealous" of her prominent donors. "They wish that they were supporting them."

Ramaswamy concluded one of his rants by labeling Haley a "fascist" and warning, “She should come nowhere near the levers of power, let alone the White House.” An unruffled Haley rebutted, “I love all the attention, fellas, thank you for that.”

Candidate Speaking Time in Minutes: Ramaswamy: 22:35, DeSantis: 21:08, Haley: 17.28, Christie: 16:52

When Christie was finally able to speak -- 17 minutes into the debate -- he launched a direct assault on his rivals for their timidity in not going after "Voldemort, the name that will not be named."

Calling Trump "a dictator, a bully," Christie said, "the truth needs to be told....I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken, he is unfit. This is a guy who just said this past week that he wants to use the Department of Justice to go after his enemies when he gets in there...he’s unfit to be president and there is no bigger issue in this race."

Christie and DeSantis erupted into a shouting match after DeSantis repeatedly avoided a moderator's question on whether Donald Trump was fit to be president.

DeSantis merely offered, “We need to have somebody younger. I think when you get up to 80, I don’t think it’s a job for that,” when further pressed. “He won’t answer. He’s afraid to answer,” said Christie, “This is the problem with my three colleagues. They’re afraid to offend.”

In one of her few critiques of Trump, Haley said Trump's policies were responsible for fentanyl coming into the country via China, and later said Trump deserves some blame for adding to the national debt during his administration.

In another heated argument on the best course of action for the U.S. in Ukraine, Christie said to Ramaswamy, "This is the fourth debate in which you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America."

Ramaswamy swiped back with a dig at Christie’s weight and said Christie's version of foreign policy was "closing a bridge between New Jersey and New York." Christie also maligned Ramaswamy for insulting Haley's intelligence, saying she is "a smart, accomplished woman.”

Ramaswamy used his closing statement to address the "hoax" of "the climate change agenda that is shackling this country like a set of handcuffs," and DeSantis presented himself as the leader with "vision" and experience to fight the opposition that the country needs.

Christie pointed to the "reality" that Donald Trump will not be going to the polls in November because he will be in jail. "The bigger problem," he said, is that "When my colleagues here raised their hands and said they would support him even if he was a convicted felon...they were confirming the lies he’s told to the American people...If we deny reality as a party, we’re going to have four more years of Joe Biden."

Haley warned that "our country is in chaos...with the economy, with inflation and with debt...We have to stop the chaos, but you can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos. And that’s what Donald Trump gives us."

FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos post-debate poll showed 30% of debate watchers felt DeSantis performed the best. Haley was a distant second with 23% rating her best, followed by Ramaswamy at 19% and Christie with 16%.

DemList will keep you informed.

DemDaily: The Dwindling GOP Field 12/5/23
DemDaily: New Hampshire First? 11/17/23
DemDaily:The Race for Second Place. The Third GOP Debate 11/`0/23
DemDaily: And Then There Were Eight 10/31/23
DemDaily: The Debate Download 9/29/23
DemDaily: Setting the State. The Second Republican Debate 9/26/23
DemDaily: Disqualified to Run? 9/12/23
DemDaily: Debate Download 8/25/23
DemDaily: Making the Debate Stage 8/22/23
DemDaily: 2nd Quarter Fundraising Positions Presidentials 7/17/23
DemDaily: The Endorsement Game 7/6/23

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: The Hill, CNN, RNC, Rev, PBS, NewsNation

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