Four candidates mixed it up onstage Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during the fourth Republican presidential debate of the 2024 campaign: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the GOP race, skipped the event for a fundraiser in Florida. Trump also declined to take part in the previous three official debates.
Podcaster and former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, NewsNation anchorwoman Elizabeth Vargas, and Washington Free Beacon Editor-in-Chief Eliana Johnson moderated the debate, hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The debate ran from 8 to 10 p.m. EST.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Vice President Mike Pence all dropped out of the race after appearing in earlier debates. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson remains in the race, though he has failed to qualify for any debate since the first.
Here are 11 highlights of the debate (including when each section was added).
1. AR-15s for Taiwan and America’s Fear of China (11:24 p.m.)
“If you want to stop [Chinese leader Xi Jinping] from invading Taiwan, let’s open a branch of the [National Rifle Association] in Taiwan and put an AR-15 in the hands of every family and train them how to use it. That will give Xi a taste of American exceptionalism.”
Vargas, as a moderator, cited that quote from Ramaswamy and asked the candidate whether, in light of the Taiwanese government’s enacting a zero-tolerance gun policy, that was a “serious” idea.
“It’s part of a broader deterrence strategy,” Ramaswamy replied, adding: “I think the next U.S. president needs to be crystal clear that at least for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will absolutely defend Taiwan, and it is with that clarity that we achieve deterrence.”
India is a key part of a larger strategy of preventing China from taking Taiwan, he said.
“India has to be able to block the Andaman Sea, which is where China gets most of its Middle Eastern oil supplies. That’s critical,” Ramaswamy said.
He said the Second Amendment to the Constitution has been an important deterrent to autocrats that has worked in America, so there’s no reason it wouldn’t work in Taiwan.
The reason Americans must think so much about China is because we now have a commingled economy, Ramaswamy said, and America’s leaders are afraid of what will happen in the case of a confrontation with the Asian giant.
“If that were a Russian spy balloon, we would have shot it down in an instant. If that were a Russian spy base in Cuba, we’d be going hard on them instead of turning the other way, as we are with China,” he said.
America’s dependency on China for pharmaceuticals and even military equipment has made us vulnerable, Ramaswamy concluded.
2. ‘If They Are Harvesting, We’re Harvesting’ (11:15 p.m.)
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton was allowed to ask a question of the four GOP candidates.
“What should states do now to increase election integrity?” asked Fitton, head of the government watchdog.
DeSantis talked about his record of election reform in Florida, but said Republicans can’t unilaterally disarm on the issue.
“Do what we did in Florida. Twenty years ago, Florida elections were a joke,” DeSantis said. “Everyone laughed at it. I came in. I removed a couple of [election] supervisors from South Florida.”
DeSantis stressed that Florida banned ballot harvesting, the practice of allowing political operatives to distribute large numbers of absentee ballots to voters and then collect them to be counted.
He also said that Florida banned private dollars from funding election administration, commonly referred to as “Zuckerbucks,” a reference to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s spending more than $400 million on election offices, mostly in Democratic areas of battleground states.
“We require universal voter ID, no Zuckerbucks, no mass-mail balloting, and no ballot harvesting,” the Florida governor said. “We even have an agency that prosecutes people for violating election laws. The result of that is in both 2020 and 2022, we counted millions and millions of votes on election night, and produced the results. It was transparent and everybody was happy. That is not happening throughout this country.”
DeSantis added, however, that if he is the Republican presidential nominee, he will play by the rules of individual states.
“Let me tell you this, as the nominee, I think it’s important. Not every state is where it needs to be,” he said.
“There is ballot harvesting in places like Nevada. I’m not going to fight with one hand tied behind my back,” DeSantis continued. “I’m going to have organizations in all the swing states. If they are harvesting, we’re harvesting. If they are going to have Zuckerbucks, we are going to have Zuckerbucks.”
“We are going to exploit whatever the rules are,” he said. “I favor changing the rules to be like Florida and some of the other states that have done a good job. But until then, we have to do that.”
3. Ending Big Pharma’s Vaccine Liability Protection (11:10 p.m.)
The four candidates for president were asked about the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, the program to develop COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Pharmaceutical firms were protected from legal liability as part of the effort.
Ramaswamy, fielding a question about whether Trump should be proud of the program, cited former President Ronald Reagan in doing so.
“This question specifically on liability goes back to, actually, Reagan, and Reagan as a president, who I admire—as many of us do—I think that reviving that spirit is in many ways going to be good for this country,” he said, “but one of the areas where he erred was this special form of lobbying to say that one kind of manufacturer, a vaccine manufacturer, cannot be sued for their product liability.”
Ramaswamy said he would take a different approach.
“I’ve pledged, as part of my legislative agenda, we will repeal that. Just like we will repeal every other form of crony capitalism,” he added. “People who have been harmed by those vaccines deserve accountability. They cannot be forgotten Americans.”
One of the top lessons we learned from that pandemic is that free speech in this country is most important in those alleged times of emergency.
If we had been allowed to openly debate the merits of those vaccines, they would never have been mandated in the way that they were.
4. Ramaswamy’s Climate Warning (11 p.m.)
Ramaswamy brought up climate change, contending that the Left’s climate agenda is “shackling this country like a set of handcuffs.”
“The climate change agenda is a hoax because it has nothing to do with the climate,” he said, noting a “98% reduction in the climate disaster-related deaths in the last century.”
“If you thought COVID was bad, what’s coming with the climate agenda is far worse,” Ramaswamy warned. “We should not be bending the knee to this new religion.”
“We are flogging ourselves and losing our modern way of life, bowing to this new god of climate,” the entrepreneur added.
5. ‘I Stood Up for Little Girls, You Didn’t’ (10:40 p.m.)
Kelly honed in on Christie as she turned the discussion toward transgender surgeries and related procedures for children.
“How is it,” Kelly asked the former New Jersey governor, “that you think a parent should be able to OK these surgeries, never mind the sterilization of a child, and aren’t you way too out of step on this issue to be the Republican nominee?”
Christie responded by insisting that elected officials “should empower parents to be teaching the values that they believe in in their homes,” rather than using the government to stop the transitioning of minors.
DeSantis took the opportunity to take a shot at Haley for her past remarks on keeping the law out of the matter, saying to strong applause: “As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids. This is mutilating these minors. These are irreversible procedures. And this is something that other countries in Europe, like Sweden … they saw it did incalculable damage. They shut it down.”
Haley defended her record on the subject as governor of South Carolina, saying that “we had maybe a handful of kids that were dealing with an issue.”
“I said, we don’t need to bring the government into this, but boys go into boys’ bathrooms, girls go into girls’ bathrooms, and if anyone else has an issue, they use a private bathroom,” Haley said. “Now, 10 years later, we see this issue has exploded.”
Haley then accused DeSantis of hypocritically downplaying the need for bills banning boys from girls’ restrooms, to which DeSantis responded: “I signed a bathroom bill in Florida; so, that’s obviously not true.”
“I signed it, you didn’t,” he told Haley. “You killed it, I signed it. I stood up for little girls, you didn’t do it.”
6. ‘Conspiracy Theories’ (10:33 p.m.)
Ramaswamy depicted himself as a great truth-teller, willing to deliver truths that appear to be “conspiracy theories” to some.
“I think the real enemy is not Donald Trump. It’s not even Joe Biden. It’s the deep state that, at least, Donald Trump attempted to take on,” he said.
Ramaswamy said he was the only person on the stage who could say that the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, “now does look like it was an inside job; 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; [and] that the 2016 election—the one that Trump won for sure—was also one that was stolen from him by the national security establishment that actually put up the Trump-Russia collusion hoax that they knew was false.”
7. DeSantis, Haley Trade Barbs Over Who’s Soft on China (9:57 p.m.)
A question about illegal immigration and the proliferation of fentanyl in the United States sparked a debate between DeSantis and Haley on who would be tougher on China.
“Look at where fentanyl came from. Let’s go to the heart of the matter,” Haley, U.N. ambassador during the Trump administration, said. “It came from China. That’s why we need to end all normal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans with fentanyl.”
Haley said that Trump was strong on trade with China, but that’s all he was good at regarding the Communist Chinese regime, because fentanyl continued to come through the southern border. She said Trump gave China technology that bolstered its military.
DeSantis responded by saying that Haley courted Chinese businesses and influence when she was governor of South Carolina.
“She wrote a love letter to the Chinese ambassador, saying how great a friend China is,” he said, later adding: “There’s also a video of her, as governor, standing in front of a Chinese flag with a Chinese business saying that she now works for them, talking about this Chinese company.”
DeSantis then said that Haley’s “Wall Street donors” make money in China and won’t let her be tough on Beijing.
“He’s just mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me,” Haley retorted.
She said that DeSantis held an event with a Chinese company in Florida, which he denied was the case. The Florida governor responded by saying that he banned China from buying land in his state and shuttered Confucius Institutes, Chinese-backed cultural centers on college campuses.
“Even the liberal media groups” said Haley’s charges about his bringing Chinese companies to Florida were false, DeSantis said.
8. Securing America’s Southern Border (9:50 p.m.)
DeSantis had said during a previous debate that he would support shooting migrants who enter the country illegally carrying dangerous drugs.
“The drug cartels are invading our country, and they are killing our citizens by the tens of thousands every year,” the Florida governor said in defense of those comments.
“The commander in chief not only has a right, you have a responsibility to fight back against these people,” DeSantis said of the Mexican cartels.
He added that he supports both designating the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and building a border wall and that he “will get it done.”
“I am not going to sit there and allow mothers to lose more kids because of fentanyl overdose,” DeSantis said.
“I am not going to sit there and let sex trafficking go unabated or human trafficking go unabated. There’s going to be a new sheriff in town, and these drug cartels better buckle up,” he said as the crowd cheered.
Haley said the 7 million or 8 million illegal aliens who have entered America under the Biden administration “absolutely have to go back,” adding, “We have to stop the incentive of what’s bringing them over here in the first place.”
For illegal aliens who have been in America longer than a few years, Haley said, “We’ve got to start seeing, who is it? How long have they been here? Have they been vetted? Have they paid taxes? Have they been working?”
Haley said she would support sending “special operations” over to “take out the cartels” and reimplementing the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy. But when it comes to fentanyl, the former U.N. ambassador said, America must hold China accountable for providing the cartels with the materials needed to make fentanyl.
America needs to “end all normal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans with fentanyl,” she said.
9. Would You Send Troops to Israel? (9:33 p.m.)
Eight Americans remain hostage in Gaza two months after Hamas took them captive Oct. 7 along with over 200 others after slaughtering 1,200 civilians in southern Israel.
“How far would you go as president to secure the release of those eight American hostages, and would it include sending American forces into combat?” one moderator asked DeSantis.
“We have to look out for our people,” DeSantis said, adding that as president, “you have to do whatever you can” to get American hostages home.
The Florida governor criticized Biden, claiming the president says he supports Israel but has done “nothing but try to kneecap them every step of the way.”
The Biden administration also must pressure Iran’s Islamist regime and “turn the screws on them,” DeSantis said. “Don’t let him have any oil revenue.”
Christie, dissatisfied with DeSantis’ answer, said that if he were president and facing a situation like the current one involving U.S. hostages, he would “absolutely” send troops if military advisers “had a plan which showed me that we could get them out safely.”
“You’re damn right I’ll send the American Army in there to get our people home and get them home now, and I’ll answer that question directly,” the former New Jersey governor said.
Ramaswamy got involved in the discussion of the Israel-Hamas war when moderators questioned him on why he had criticized Haley for calling Hamas’ bloody incursion into Israel an attack on America.
The entrepreneur condemned Hamas’ terrorist attack, but added that “to say that that was an attack on America fails a basic test.”
He then took a shot at Haley.
“I mean, Nikki, if you can’t tell the difference between where Israel is and the U.S. is on a map, I can have my 3-year-old son show you the difference.”
Ramaswamy added that Haley’s language “is irresponsible, because it has major consequences, because that doesn’t leave room for what actually is an attack on America.”
10. ‘Shut Up’: Christie-Ramaswamy Shoutfest (9:23 p.m.)
Two candidates at the back of the pack—Ramaswamy and Christie—engaged in a heated and seemingly personal exchange. (At one point, Christie vigorously defended Haley from what he characterized as Ramaswamy’s insults about her intelligence and integrity.)
Haley talked about the need for a strong America in addressing the Russia-Ukraine war, prompting Ramaswamy to say that the former U.N. ambassador had “no idea” of the names of the Ukrainian provinces she would allow the U.S. military to fight for.
Ramaswamy said he was the first candidate to propose a “reasonable” peace deal for Ukraine and Russia, which invaded the former Soviet republic in February 2022.
Christie jumped in to say that deal would give Russia all the land it has stolen.
“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted … as the most obnoxious blowhard in America, so shut up,” Christie told Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy shot back: “Your version of foreign policy experience was closing down a bridge from New Jersey to New York. Walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this race!”
At that point, the top-polling candidates on the stage—DeSantis and Haley—remained quiet.
Ramaswamy said his opponents were following the lead of politicians who said after the 9/11 attacks that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney. It is still a neocon,” he said.
Christie shot back that he has experience in prosecuting terrorists as a U.S. attorney who took office immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey when the terrorist attacks were launched against the United States in 2001,” he said.
“I brought the first two cases in this country against terrorists who tried to attack us again. And I know the threat of terrorism and bullying in this country and around the world,” Christie said. “At that time, he [Ramaswamy] was learning about the provinces in Ukraine, sitting with his smartass mouth at Harvard. The fact of the matter is, back then, he was a Democrat.”
11. DeSantis, Haley Spar Over Trans Procedures for Kids (9:14 p.m.)
Haley used a leftist slur to describe a Florida law that bans classroom discussions of gender and sexuality for children in kindergarten through third grade.
DeSantis slammed Haley’s remarks in an interview on “CBS Mornings,” which she made back in June.
“It wasn’t about the parents’ rights in education bill, it was about prohibiting sex-change operations on minors,” DeSantis said. “They do puberty blockers, they do irreversible—talk to [detransitioner] Chloe Cole, she went through this.”
“That is what Nikki Haley opposed,” the Florida governor added. “She said the law shouldn’t get involved in that, and I just ask you: If you’re somebody who’s going to be president of the United States, and you can’t stand up against child abuse, how are you going to be able to stand up for anything?”
Haley disputed DeSantis’ characterization, bringing up Florida’s HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which drew heavy fire from LGBTQ advocates, liberal media, and Democrats.
“I never said that,” she responded. “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.”
“You said the law should stay out of it,” DeSantis responded.
During the June interview with CBS News, Haley criticized pro-transgender policies that allow “biological boys” in girls’ locker rooms. The interviewer asked her: “What care should be on the table when a 12-year-old child in this country assigned female at birth says, actually, ‘I feel more comfortable living as a boy’?” Should the law allow that, he asked her.
“Well, I think the law should stay out of it,” Haley said. “This is a job for the parents to handle.”
She went on in that interview to criticize the idea that children should undergo permanent changes before they turn 18. She also emphasized that schools should not “go in and force things” on the issue.
Haley previously has criticized the idea that children should be allowed to undergo experimental transgender medical interventions before they turn 18.
“I actually said his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t go far enough,” Haley said.
The Florida measure, now law, didn’t use the word “gay.” The law includes the word “parent” 32 times and the word “parental” seven times. The law focuses on parental notification and parental awareness of what their kids are being taught or exposed to in school.
Peter Parisi, Ken McIntyre, and Sara Garstka contributed to this report.
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