Dec 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Christie unleashed, knives out for Haley: 4 takeaways from the GOP debate

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Obnoxious blowhard. Fascist neocon. Angry, bitter man. The final GOP debate of 2023 featured some of the most explosive exchanges yet, as four candidates battled to shake up a race still dominated by former President Trump.

Why it matters: The Iowa caucuses are in 40 days. At least two candidates — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy — seemed keenly aware that they may not make the next debate stage, giving them every incentive to let it rip.

4 takeaways

1. Nikki Haley treated like a front-runner.

  • Viewers may be surprised to learn the former UN ambassador is actually polling in third behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, given the dogpile she faced from the very jump.
  • But Haley has all the momentum, with a stream of billionaires and Wall Street mega-donors — plus the deep-pocketed Koch political network — now lining up behind her as the most viable Trump alternative.
  • Haley cheerfully fended off attacks from DeSantis and Ramaswamy — refusing to dignify the latter with a rebuttal at one point — even as it became clear her appeal to elite business interests could be a liability in the grassroots-driven GOP primary.
  • "I love all the attention, fellas. Thank you for that," Haley quipped after the initial onslaught.

2. Christie's raison d'être.

  • NewsNation moderator Megyn Kelly's first question to the former New Jersey governor was the one on everyone's mind: Why are you still in the race with an approval rating of 25% among Republican voters?
  • Christie responded by declaring himself "the only person on stage who is telling the truth" about Trump: "The fact of the matter is, he's unfit to be president. There's no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump, and [his dominant polling] numbers prove it."
  • But perhaps the most intriguing moment of Christie's performance was when he launched an aggressive defense of Haley, calling her a "smart, accomplished woman" in response to Ramaswamy attacking her intelligence.
  • Christie's relatively strong support in New Hampshire is viewed as a barrier to Haley's ability to consolidate the anti-Trump vote, and an endorsement could significantly shake up the state's primary on Jan. 23.
Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

3. Conspiracy theories infiltrate the debate.

  • Ramaswamy — whose headline-grabbing stunts appear to be getting more extreme with each debate — unleashed a torrent of baseless conspiracy theories as he attacked the "Deep State" as the real enemy.
  • "Why am I the only person on this stage who can say that Jan. 6 now does look like it was an inside job?" Ramaswamy falsely claimed, before also arguing that the 2020 election was "stolen" by Big Tech and that the racist "great replacement theory" is a tenet of the Democratic platform.
  • NewsNation also made the unusual decision to outsource several of its questions to Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton, a pro-Trump activist who has been named one of Twitter's most prominent purveyors of misinformation about the 2020 election.

4. Trump "dictator" fallout.

  • The NewsNation moderators pledged to focus more on Trump than previous debates had, and began the second hour by asking about the former president's comments Tuesday night that he will be a "dictator" on "Day 1" of his term.
  • Christie did not hold back: "This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who disagrees with him, and anyone who has tried to hold him to account."
  • But the others remained reluctant to attack the GOP front-runner: After prodding from the moderators and Christie about whether Trump was unfit for office, DeSantis said that "Father Time is undefeated" and called for a new generation of leaders. Haley was silent.

The bottom line: Cutting through the noise, the key question in the coming weeks will be whether DeSantis did enough to derail Haley's momentum. Without a viral knockout blow, it seems unlikely.

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