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Watch in full: Candidates spar over the issues at fourth Republican debate

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(NewsNation) —  Four Republican presidential hopefuls took the debate stage Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a last-chance effort to win over voters before the Iowa caucuses in just six weeks.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared in person at the University of Alabama, looking to position themselves as a viable alternative to former President Donald Trump — the dominant GOP front-runner.

Trump did not attend this or any of the previous debates, noting that he continues to dominate the polls and maintains a sizable lead over the rest of the party. Trump held a fundraiser in Florida instead.

Moderators Elizabeth Vargas, the Peabody award-winning anchor of NewsNation’s “Elizabeth Vargas Reports;” Megyn Kelly, host of “The Megyn Kelly Show” on SiriusXM; Eliana Johnson, editor-in-chief of The Washington Free Beacon, opened the debate by asking the field about their electability.

DeSantis was asked first if recent polling numbers suggest 2028 would have been a better time to run, given most Republican voters still prefer Trump. 

The Florida governor gave an impassioned and defiant answer, declaring, “I’m sick of hearing about these polls.”

“We’re going to earn this nomination,” DeSantis responded. ”I will fight for you and I will win for you.”

DeSantis and Haley, who have been battling for second place in recent polling, shared a lively back-and-fourth out of the gate.

DeSantis went after Haley by saying “she caves” on the issues when it comes to gender-affirming care for minors.

DeSantis, in his remarks, touted a law he signed that prohibits the prescription of puberty-blocking, hormone and hormone antagonist therapies to treat gender dysphoria in minors. It also bans gender-affirming medical procedures or surgeries for those younger than 18.

“She opposes that bill,” DeSantis said. “She thinks it’s fine and the law shouldn’t get involved with it.”

Haley hit back, saying, “DeSantis continues to lie about my record.”

“I said that if you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, you should have to be 18 to have anything done to change your gender,” Haley said to applause from the audience.

If Haley’s not willing to “stand up for the kids,” DeSantis argued, she is not going to fight for the “people back home.”

“I will fight for you and I will win for you,” DeSantis said.

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Opening statements

The first question to Haley was about her net worth and current and past relationships with corporations and big-name donors. 

Haley responded by saying, “We’ll take support from anybody we can take support from” but says she’s been a “conservative fighter” all her life.

“I did serve on the board of Boeing,” she said. “Served for 10 months. I’ve never supported corporate bailout so I stepped back and got off the board. In terms of these donors supporting me,” the other candidates are “just jealous.”

Ramaswamy used his opening statement to attack Haley for working for a U.S. manufacturing company, though he took investment from foreign countries for his business. 

He has campaigned on a message of unity but has increasingly taken shots at the other candidates during each of the three preceding debates. 

Moderator Megyn Kelly then asked: Is he worried that voters may be questioning his authenticity?

He responded by criticizing Haley’s record, calling her “corrupt.”

“Nikki = corrupt,” Ramaswamy wrote on notepad. Signs aren’t allowed during debates, but Ramaswamy used a legal pad at his podium to write a note criticizing Haley.

Ramaswamy targeted Haley’s past corporate ties and pointed out contacts between Haley and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink as well as a donation to a pro-Haley super PAC from billionaire entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, who he called “George Soros Jr.”

Haley brushed off the barbs while touting her pro-business bonafides.

“I love all the attention, fellas,” she said later, as DeSantis joined in on the attack. “Thank you for that.”

Christie was the last candidate to be called on and used his opening statement to point out that the other candidates won’t talk about Trump as though he’s “Voldemort” from the Harry Potter book series and shall not be named.

Haley targeted

About 10 minutes into the debate, both DeSantis and Ramaswamy went after Haley, targeting her stance that people using social media should not be allowed to do so anonymously. 

Ramaswamy suggested she is a “fascist” for suggesting such a policy.

Clarifying her position, Haley says social media companies need to fight bots and “show us their algorithms.”

Haley and DeSantis were positioned in the middle of the debate stage, while Christie and Ramaswamy were standing at podiums on the outside.

Early in the debate, sparks flew when Ramaswamy suggested that candidates, particularly Haley, have foreign policy experience, but not “foreign policy wisdom.” He said Haley couldn’t even name three provinces in eastern Ukraine and took a jab at her time serving for the United Nations, calling it a “cup-of-coffee stint.”

DeSantis also lobbed attacks at Haley, specifically about her positions on China and record on transgender issues.

Data science professor Liberty Vittert believes the tactics by the two men could have an impact on women voters.

“Personally, it was the first time that Ramaswamy and DeSantis potentially really lost a significant portion of women by calling Nikki Haley, former governor and ambassador, stupid. It was mansplaining at its finest,” Vittert said.



Christie was the first to acknowledge Trump’s dominance in the polls, telling the audience that the other three candidates are “timid” to even say his name. Christie has been the most vocal critic of Trump, who he says is “unfit” to be president.

“These three are acting as if the race is between the four of us,” he said. “It’s often very difficult to be the only person on stage who’s telling the truth.”

Christie said he’s still in the Republican presidential race because he’s the only person willing to take onTrump, who he called a “dictator” and a “bully.”

“I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken, (Trump) is unfit,” Christie said. “There is no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump and (the polls) prove it.”

Christie says he doesn’t think Trump is kidding when he says he would only be a dictator “on day one” if he returns to the White House.

Christie says, “There’s no mystery” to what Trump wants to do as he has ramped rhetoric that has been criticized as increasingly authoritarian and violent.

That opposition of the former president got some boos from inside the debate hall.

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

Israel-Hamas war

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

The candidates were then asked if they would support sending American troops to Israel to help in its war with Hamas.

Christie answered, “Damn right, I would.”

DeSantis said the Biden administration has “hobbled” Israel. But he didn’t directly answer the question, which Christie noted.

“He went on this 30-second hosanna,” Christie said in response.

Christie rebuked DeSantis, saying he would “absolutely” send U.S. troops to Israel if necessary.

Ramaswamy 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.


“Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom,” Ramaswamy said turning the focus to Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. 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.

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.”

Ukraine-Russia war

As the debate moved to the war in Ukraine, the discussion devolved into a war of words with personal attacks.

In a heated exchange, Ramaswamy suggested Haley wants to support Ukraine just to support a war, arguing she can’t name a single province or village in eastern Ukraine.

Christie jumped in to defend her and said that after four debates, Ramaswamy could be voted as the “most obnoxious blowhard in America.”

Christie continued the exchange by slamming Ramaswamy’s views on ending the war in Ukraine, saying that he would give Russia “all the land that they’ve already stolen.”

When Ramaswamy interjected that this wasn’t his proposal, Christie argued that Ramaswamy is constantly changing his positions.

“You go out on the stump and you say something, all of us see it on video, we confront you on the debate stage, you say you didn’t say it, and then you back away,” he said.

Ramaswamy hit back by pointing to New Jersey’s “Bridgegate scandal.”

“Chris, your version of foreign policy experience was closing a bridge from New Jersey to New York,” he retorted.

Both candidates have consistently argued for their positions, with Christie siding with foreign policy hawks who want to continue to support Ukraine against Russia and Ramaswamy wanting to cut a deal to end the war.

Border / fentanyl

When asked about the U.S.-Mexico border, both DeSantis and Haley say that if elected, they would use U.S. military assets at the southern border to go after Mexican drug cartels to stem the flow of fentanyl coming over the border. 

A nine-minute segment focused largely on the fentanyl scourge, with Haley and Ramaswamy focused more on China than Mexico as a source of the drug.

Ramaswamy said the “demand-side problem” needs to be addressed.

He blamed China as the “root cause” for supplying Mexico with the precursor chemicals to manufacture fentanyl.

Ramaswamy additionally advocated for deputizing local law enforcement to help carry out border policy with ICE. 

Haley addressed the issue of immigration, rejecting the idea of a Muslim ban proposed by Trump, instead advocating for a focus on screening people from countries that have an adversarial relationship with the U.S. or harbor terrorist groups. 

She clashed with DeSantis, who says the U.S. should not accept people from cultures who are “hostile,” including refugees from Gaza.


Haley and DeSantis sparred over China, with each saying the other wasn’t tough enough on the country and had allowed the communist government’s agents to infiltrate America.

Haley criticized Trump, her former boss, saying that though he was good on trade, “that’s all he was with China.”

“He allowed fentanyl to continue to come over,” Haley said. “He would give them technology that would build up their military and hurt us. He allowed the Chinese infiltration for them to buy up farmland, to put money in our universities and to continue to do things that were harmful for America.”

DeSantis shot back, saying it was “rich” for Haley to say this, claiming that when she was governor, she brought the Chinese Communist Party into South Carolina.

“She wrote a love letter to the Chinese ambassador saying how great a friend China is,” DeSantis said. “She’s been very weak on China. Her donors, these Wall Street liberal donors, they make money in China, they are not going to let her be tough on China.”

Responding to DeSantis, Haley said he’s mad because “those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me.”

Student debt

Switching topics to address the mountain of student debt with which young Americans are straddled, DeSantis says he would make student loans “backed by the universities” so they have an incentive to ensure their graduates can afford to pay them back.

DeSantis suggested a solution to the student loan crisis could be shifting the burden of backing loans from the government to universities.

DeSantis rejected the idea of people taking out loans for subjects he said do not lead to gainful employment, such as gender studies in his opinion.

Shifting the burden to universities, he said it would force colleges to focus on skills directly related to employment.

Haley said she would tackle that issue by including anti-Zionism in the definition of antisemitism and threatening to take away universities’ tax-exempt status if they did not do enough to combat antisemitic rhetoric.

Aging lawmakers

Christie pivoted to criticizing Trump, noting candidates who said they would support the former president even if he is convicted of a felony.

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.”

DeSantis used the question about Trump’s age as an opportunity to draw distinctions between himself and Trump. 

“He didn’t drain the swamp. Mexico didn’t pay for a wall,” he said. “He promises to follow through with what Trump promised to do… So the distinction is he’ll get it done, it seems. We shall see … he didn’t quite have an answer to whether his proposals were legal.”

DeSantis expressed concern about aging candidates in office, including Trump, focusing on age rather than Trump’s specific policies. 

Christie then went after all of the others for failing to call Trump unfit, while Ramaswamy attacked the “deep state” instead of discussing Trump.

He tangled with DeSantis and Ramaswamy over whether Trump is fit for office.

Christie accused those on stage of being “afraid” of Trump, hammering DeSantis and Ramaswamy in particular for their approach to the former president.

“He’s made it very clear, there’s no mystery to what he wants to do,” Christie said of Trump, adding later that the former president “wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him.”

“This is an angry, bitter man,” Christie also said.

Transgender youths

Responding to a question on the transgender youth debate, Christie cited parents’ rights to defend his objection to laws banning gender-affirming treatment for trans youth while still expressing an opinion that surgery for minors is dangerous. 

“I trust parents,” Christie said, calling out the hypocrisy of some of the Republican party policies.

“The minute you start to take those rights away from parents, you know, that’s a slippery slope,” Christie said. “What rights are going to be taken away next?”

DeSantis drew loud cheers when he said parents “do not have the right to abuse” their kids in response to Christie’s remarks.

DeSantis referred to gender-affirming surgery as abuse and mutilation, defending laws banning the treatments.

Saying “as a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” DeSantis said, “This is mutilating these minors. These are irreversible procedures.”

Ramaswamy referred to people who are trans as having a “mental health disorder.” 

Haley defended her decision to reject a bathroom bill as governor of South Carolina.

Ramaswamy rejected identity politics based on gender, religion or race and attacked Haley as inauthentic and corrupt. 

Haley declined to address those comments, saying, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

Secure elections

Many Republicans are concerned about the legitimacy of elections. The candidates were asked what states should do now to increase election integrity and voter confidence for the 2024 elections?

DeSantis rejected mail-in ballots and ballot harvesting, saying he will exploit the rules being followed in swing states. He also called for cleaning out the Department of Justice to eliminate corruption.

Christie vowed to stay out of criminal investigations and pick an attorney general who will follow the facts to restore faith in the justice system.

Free speech

When asked about balancing free speech against radical activists intimidating others on the campuses of America’s universities, Haley equated pro-Hamas groups to the KKK and advocated for including anti-Zionism in the definition of antisemitism.

Haley also pushed for a TikTok ban, saying the app makes people more antisemitic and threatens to take away tax-exempt status from colleges that don’t do enough to combat antisemitism.

Haley added that the U.S. must get rid of foreign infiltration, including on social media and foreign lobbying, and by securing the southern border.

DeSantis called deterring China the No. 1 national security issue, while Ramaswamy stood by a previous statement that he would arm everyone in Taiwan to deter aggression from China.

Presidential inspiration

In closing, the candidates were asked which former president they would draw inspiration from for their own presidency and why?

Christie said he would draw inspiration from Ronald Reagan, saying he has been working on a book about the president he called a “slave to the truth.” 

Haley named both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the latter of whom she said led the nation through the division of the Civil War. DeSantis named Calvin Coolidge, saying that “silent Cal knew the proper role of the federal government.” 

Ramaswamy, the stage’s youngest candidate at 38 years old, said he would take inspiration from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence when he was just 33.

Closing statements

“If you give me this chance we will crush him (Joe Biden) in November and take our country back,” Haley said in her closing statement.

In his closing statement, Ramaswamy addressed climate change in the U.S., calling the climate agenda “a religion.”

“The climate change agenda is a hoax,” he said.

In his closing statement, Christie warned that the party standing for Trump would mean four more years of Biden. He predicted Trump would be convicted of a felony by the time of the election.

Trump’s “right to vote will be taken away” prior to election day, he said.

DeSantis said he won’t be an establishment Republican, pointing to his record in Florida and his refusal to back down on ideals, saying in his closing statement that he refuses to allow this generation to be “the first generation of Americans to leave to our kids an America (that is) less free and less prosperous than the one we inherited.”

NewsNation Digital Producers Andrew Dorn, Cassie Buchman, Tyler Wornell, Steph Whiteside, Damita Menezes, Devan Markham and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: Fox 8 News Channel

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