Takeaways from the fourth Republican presidential debate

Republican U.S. presidential candidates participate in their fourth debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
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By James Oliphant and Tim Reid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Four U.S. presidential contenders - the smallest field yet - debated in Alabama on Wednesday, all trying to survive to battle former President Donald Trump next year for the Republican nomination.

Here are some takeaways from the fourth Republican presidential debate:

HALEY IN THE BARREL

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley isn’t leading the Republican pack. That position belongs to Trump, who once again skipped the debate.

But in a nod to the momentum Haley has been building over the last several weeks, she was repeatedly targeted during the debate by her rivals on stage, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

In the debate's first few moments, DeSantis accused Haley of not supporting a ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, something she denied. Ramaswamy hit Haley on her support from Wall Street donors and her time on the board of Boeing Co. “It adds up to the fact that you are corrupt,” he said.

It became a theme Ramaswamy stayed with during the course of the evening, even at one point holding up a handmade sign that read "Nikki = Corrupt."

Haley defended her work for Boeing and mocked her rivals.

"In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they're just jealous,” Haley said. “They wish that they were supporting them." The crowd inside the auditorium roared.

After DeSantis and Ramaswamy continued to pile on, she smiled and said, “I love all the attention fellas, thank you for that."

DeSantis’ criticism was a clear sign that he views Haley as a threat to his goal to be the last candidate standing along with Trump after the Republican nominating contests begin next month. Haley now is essentially tied with DeSantis in Iowa and ahead of him in New Hampshire, the first two voting states of the primary race.

All night, DeSantis sought to frame Haley as part of the establishment wing of the Republican Party, which has lost currency in the era of Trump.

Haley, at times, grew frustrated with the attacks on her record. "Ron has continued to lie because he's losing," she said.

CHRISTIE: RIVALS TOO SCARED TO TAKE ON TRUMP

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has almost no chance of winning the Republican nomination, chastised his fellow debaters for being too timid to take on the frontrunner Trump.

In a Harry Potter reference, Christie compared Trump to the evil wizard Voldemort, saying his on-stage rivals were too scared to say Trump's name out loud and make a robust case against his re-election.

As the debate progressed, Christie was indeed the only candidate to really lambaste the former president, calling him a dictator and a bully.

“I’m in the race because the truth needs to be spoken. He is unfit,” Christie said.

Given the chance to go after Trump by a moderator, DeSantis’ response was half-hearted. He said Trump would be too old to serve a second term – he would be 78 on Inauguration Day in 2025 - but then spent much of his answer defending Trump against warnings by Biden and others that Trump would become a dictator if re-elected.

“That is not how he governed," DeSantis said.

Christie accused DeSantis of repeatedly avoiding the question on whether Trump was fit to govern, saying: “You’re afraid or you’re not listening. You’re afraid to offend Donald Trump.”

HITTING TRUMP ON CHINA

Haley, who also at times has been criticized for not being tough enough on Trump, knocked the former president when she was asked about China.

Specifically, she said Trump didn’t do enough to stop the flow of fentanyl from China into the U.S. “This is where Trump went wrong,” Haley said. “Trump was good on trade, but that’s all he was with China.”

She also lashed out at Trump for not preventing Chinese interests from purchasing U.S. land.

DeSantis used the issue to attack Haley and said nothing abut Trump, blasting her for encouraging Chinese investment when she was governor of South Carolina and again suggesting that she was in the pocket of “Wall Street liberal donors.”

“They aren’t going to let her be tough on China,” DeSantis said.

Haley snapped back with a retort. “He’s just mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me,” she said.

CHRISTIE AND RAMASWAMY GO LOW

A combustible mix of the famously pugnacious Christie and the young, slick-tongued tech billionaire Ramaswamy produced one of the fieriest, insult-laden exchanges of the night.

After Ramaswamy criticized Haley's foreign policy credentials, Christie exploded, saying Ramaswamy was attacking her intelligence instead of her positions.

Christie called Ramaswamy "the most obnoxious blowhard in America."

Ramaswamy shot back with an apparent dig at Christie’s weight.

"Do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race," he said to Christie, who then railed against Ramaswamy’s “smart ass mouth."

And that was before the first commercial break.

(Reporting by James Oliphant and Tim ReidEditing by Colleen Jenkins and Deepa Babington)