While we can’t say for certain whether Nikki Haley was ever in the ring with a world-heavyweight boxing champ, walking off stage at the University of Alabama on Thursday night, she probably felt like she had been.
Going into this encounter, Haley knew she had a giant X pinned to her back; Florida governor Ron DeSantis was feeling scrappy; Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy came carrying an armload of fireworks, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s double-barrel shotgun was loaded and ready for his twin targets: Taking down former president Donald Trump while providing cover for Haley, the GOP establishment’s new darling.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand these debates are like staring at clouds with your friends; Everybody watches the same thing, yet everyone sees something different. So it was with the year’s fourth and final Republican presidential debate. Also, our founding editor Will Folks had a front row seat as these particular clouds went by, so expect him to have his own thoughts regarding what transpired in Tuscaloosa, as well.
Perhaps even a “First in the South” endorsement …
Back in the Heart of Dixie, the NewsNation stage at Alabama’s Moody music building was certainly more spacious than any of the previous debate platforms. Gone was the cattle call of eight candidates that crowded the stage at the first GOP encounter back in August. This time, the herd was whittled down to the Final Four (minus former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson , who didn’t make the qualifying cut, and Trump, who once again opted to be otherwise engaged).
Just as in the first three go-arounds, there were no horrific campaign-ending gaffes – nor any nomination-securing grand slam home runs. Meaning technically there was no “winner.” Those supporting a particular guy or gal gave their candidate the “W.”
Today’s post-debate media coverage is spinning it from that perspective as well.
So having dispensed with the claims of victory, just what the heck happened in Tuscaloosa? Plenty.
Viewers were treated to 120 minutes of Republicans eating their own. The “Tussle in Tuscaloosa” was two hours of political cannibalism as the four candidates took turns turning on each other. With the exception of BFFs Christie and Haley, each candidate lashed out at the others one by one. It was like “Lord of the Flies,” minus the pesky warpaint.
Let’s revisit each candidate’s performances, in alphabetical order …
At age 61, the former New Jersey governor was the self-appointed “grownup in the Room” – although his shopworn attacks on Trump were there in abundance.
“This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his conduct,” Christie said.
Tell us how you really feel, governor.
His big moment of the night came when he pushed back against Ramaswamy for repeatedly interrupting his opponents, calling the entrepreneur “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
The Christie-Haley Axis was on full display, too. The rotund “Republican” quickly rushed to Haley’s aid when she was under attack, again telling Ramasawmay he had “insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence …” followed up by, “Nikki and I disagree on some issues, but I’ll tell you this: I’ve known her for 12 years, which is longer than [Ramaswamy] even started to vote in the Republican primary.”
Though he didn’t win any converts, from a sheer entertainment perspective, Christie didn’t disappoint.
Some observers called it the Florida governor’s best debate performance yet. He was lively, passionate, clear on policy—and sporting for a fight. The bulk of his firepower was aimed at his fellow former governor.
He said he was “sick of Republicans who are not willing to stand up and fight back against what is left of this country,” going on to lay the blame at Haley’s feet. “She caves any time the Left comes after her, any time the media comes after her.”
DeSantis chimed in frequently, earning one of the night’s biggest applause bursts when he said about children having gender-changing surgery, “You do not have the right to abuse your kids. This is mutilating these minors; these are irreversible procedures.”
Lines like that are bound to play well in Iowa, whose Jan. 15 GOP caucuses mark the official start of primary voting. But will it be enough to stave off his increasingly serious threat from the Palmetto State’s remaining candidate?
There’s just no sugarcoating it: The former governor had a lackluster night. True, the old spunkiness was there (such as retorting to her attackers, “I love all the attention, fellas. Thank you for that.”). But her less than pleasant side was also on display, repeatedly snapping at DeSantis, “You’re a liar” and “You’re lying.”
And she got a big round of applause when she pushed back against criticism of campaign donations she has received with, “In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them.”
However, the withering assaults in the first hour clearly took their toll. Though she didn’t wilt, Haley distinctly seemed to lose steam in the second half.
When she drew a blistering broadside from Ramaswamy that especially cut to the quick, all she said was merely, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”
Either it was a brilliant move that sidestepped rolling in the mud with him, or her energy reserved had finally hit “empty.” Viewers were left to guess which was the case as she sputtered to the end of the night.
The billionaire’s quiver was filled to the brim with zingers. The svelte Ramaswamy, who was spotted working out at a Tuscaloosa gym earlier in the day, told the portly Christie, “do everybody a favor, just walk off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this race.”
Most, though not all, of his barbs were directed at Haley. He blasted her “cup of a coffee stint at the U.N.,” adding the more thoughtful observation that “foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom.”
Ramaswamy also hit Haley’s achilles heel when he attacked her “authenticity,” but he may have pushed the comparison too far when he held up a handwritten sign which read, “Nikki = Corrupt.”
“This is a woman who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house,” Ramaswamy said of Haley.
But it was Ramaswamy’s swansong at the end that drew the most attention, rattling off a list of topics that aren’t being discussed by any of the other candidates in the campaign.
“Why am I the only person, on this stage at least, who can say that January 6th now does look like an inside job?” he asked. “That the government lied to us for 20 years about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9/11? That the Great Replacement Theory is not some grand, right-wing conspiracy theory but a basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform? That the 2020 election was indeed stolen by Big Tech?”
“The only conspiracy theory he left out was who kidnapped Jimmy Hoffa,” a GOP consultant quipped afterward.
Maybe so, but according to our founding editor, Ramaswamy’s willingness to confront these controversial subjects raises his profile and “reinforces the perception he’s the only one on the stage not under somebody else’s thumb.”
One bright spot in Tuscaloosa was NewsNation’s three-woman panel headed by moderator Megyn Kelly, which did a commendable job overseeing the four-ring circus. To their immense credit, there was none of the craziness that marred the previous events (such as the low watermark in the second round when Fox News’ Dana Perino posed the most insipid question in debate history by asking each member of the field which rival candidate they would “vote off the island”).
Finally, the one person who could legitimately claim the title of victor wasn’t even in the room Thursday night. He was 750 miles away in Florida. Make no mistake: Donald Trump’s frontrunner status is as secure as ever – even though the moderators of the debate made each candidate suspend disbelief and consider what might happen if Trump were unable to claim the nomination due to his myriad legal troubles.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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