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Warm-up acts

White House hopefuls debate one last time before primary season starts

Chris Christie and Nikki Haley at the GOP presidential debate Wednesday night Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert

Warm-up acts

The number of podiums on the stage was down to four on Wednesday for the last GOP presidential debate of the year. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all qualified under the most stringent rules yet. According to the Republican National Committee, candidates had to report at least 80,000 unique donors, with at least 200 in each of 20 states. The RNC also required at least 6 percent support in two national polls or one national poll and two from early-voting states. The Iowa Republican caucuses kick off primary season in 40 days on Jan. 15.

NewsNation, The Megyn Kelly Show, The Washington Free Beacon, and Rumble co-hosted the debate, from Tuscaloosa, Ala.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina suspended their campaigns since the last debate. Former President Donald Trump continues to poll well ahead of the field at an average of 61 percent of Republican voters’ support as of Monday. He again declined to attend and held a private fundraiser in Florida instead.

All polling data is aggregated from RealClearPolitics.

Ron DeSantis

DeSantis took the debate stage less than a week after another debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom in which DeSantis contrasted his state leadership with Newsom’s liberal policies. Last weekend, DeSantis completed a “full Grassley” in Iowa—a 99-county visit named after the state’s longest-serving senator, Chuck Grassley.

Southern border: During past debates, DeSantis took a hard line on cartels and migrants crossing the border. When asked to clarify his statement that he would shoot cartel members “stone cold dead,” he pivoted to other border policies. He proposed categorizing “illegal aliens” as foreign terrorist organizations and finishing a border wall that Trump did not complete. He also said he would impose fees on money that foreign workers send home to disincentive further migration. DeSantis also said his administration would not grant visas to people from places that are hostile to American values, like Gaza, which he said is anti-Semitic.

Trump: Moderators had tough questions about DeSantis’ electability, given sinking polls throughout his campaign. But DeSantis again banked on his leadership in Florida as a conservative blueprint for the nation. He did not answer whether he thought Trump was fit to lead again. He argued that Trump and Biden are too old and that Trump did not fulfill all of his promises. DeSantis argued he can complete his promises in two consecutive terms, something Trump would be ineligible to do even if he won election in 2024.

COVID-19: DeSantis promised “a reckoning” coming for Big Pharma and “Washington elites” who pushed mRNA vaccines in response to COVID-19. He discussed how he banned vaccine mandates in Florida due to lack of data and warned that government overreach could happen again. And he promised his administration would expand price transparency in healthcare and hold Big Pharma accountable.

Poll performance: 13.5 percent, down 1.1 points since last debate

In his words: Regarding laws that protect children from medical attempts to change their sex traits, DeSantis said, “As a parent, you don’t have the right to abuse your kids. … These are minors, these are irreversible procedures. … I signed legislation in Florida banning the mutilation of minors because it is wrong. We cannot allow this to happen in this country.”

Nikki Haley

Haley’s campaign received a significant boost on Nov. 28 when she received the endorsement of the political action arm of Americans for Prosperity, an organization backed by Koch Industries. The conservative political action committee has one of the largest ground operations in the country. AFP endorsed DeSantis in 2022 for his reelection campaign, but in an announcement, CEO Emily Seidel said that Haley is the only candidate in a position to defeat Trump and Biden. AFP also refused to endorse Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Illegal immigration: Haley clarified comments made on the campaign trail that she supported deporting illegal immigrants. If elected, she said she would deport the roughly 7 million migrants who have entered the country during Biden’s term. But she said she wants a reformed system for migrants who have been in the country longer, especially those who have been vetted and paid taxes. She tied southern border safety to relations with nations like China, saying her trade policies would be tougher than Trump’s.

Foreign policy: Haley again referred to her experience as ambassador to the United Nations to argue she can take on dictators like Vladimir Putin. She pointed out that Hamas invaded Israel on Putin’s birthday and at a low point for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She stopped short of promising to bomb Iran, an idea Trump floated, but said she would target Syrian and Iranian infrastructures to stop the flow of support to Hamas and Russia.

Playing defense: Haley spent most of the night batting away attacks from the other candidates. She defended a transgender bathroom bill she vetoed in South Carolina, arguing that it was not as large an issue during her term but times have changed. She also clarified that when she said she would require valid IDs for social media, she meant that she would get Russian and Chinese bots off platforms.

Poll performance: 10.3 percent, up 0.9 points since last debate

In her words: “We have to stop the chaos. But you can’t defeat Democratic chaos with Republican chaos, and that’s what Donald Trump gives us. My approach is no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”

Vivek Ramaswamy

Since the last debate in November, Ramaswamy has gone all-in for Iowa. He and his family rented an apartment in Des Moines and continued to post videos from the campaign bus crisscrossing the state. Ramaswamy poked at DeSantis’ ground game in the Hawkeye State, claiming he will do “two full Grassleys.”. On Wednesday before the debate, he promised to deliver “a major surprise here in about 50 days.”

Healthcare: The country has a “sick-care” system, according to Ramaswamy—one that prioritizes treating sickness as opposed to promoting wellness, fitness, and autonomy. He criticized long-standing policies, established during the Reagan administration, that shield vaccine lobbyists from litigation, as well as antitrust exemptions for health insurance companies. He further stressed that former employees of the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies should not be permitted to work in the same industry they previously regulated.

Corruption: Ramaswamy heavily criticized his fellow candidates—especially Haley—for big-dollar donations that, he said, put them in the pocket of special interests. He cited Haley’s tenure on the board of Boeing after her time at the United Nations. Ramaswamy contended he was the only candidate on the stage without significant ties to interest groups, echoing claims Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016.

The deep state: Ramaswamy embraced claims that the 2020 election had been stolen, that the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, may have been an inside job, and that Democrats are pushing a “great replacement theory” to oust conservatives. These narratives, he claimed, ran counter to the wishes of the deep state that he would expose as president.

Poll performance: 4.9 percent, up 0.5 points since last debate

In his words: “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. There’s a reason I am the only person on the stage who can say these things.”

Chris Christie

Even though he narrowly qualified for the latest debate, Christie insists he’s staying in the race as a serious candidate. On Nov. 13, he visited Israel and spoke with military officials at a kibbutz near the Gaza border. Speaking at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Christie recalled watching video footage compiled by the Israeli Defense Forces of Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7. He called on Congress to pass more aid and criticized his fellow candidates for lackluster foreign policy plans. Christie has continued to focus his campaign almost exclusively in New Hampshire, specifically at college town halls.

Answer the question: Christie held several candidates’ feet to the fire when they gave roundabout answers to yes-or-no questions. Claiming he was a “simple guy,” Christie answered challenging questions bluntly. When asked if he would send troops to defend Taiwan and Americans in Israel, Christie pointedly said he would. He asked how the other candidates can be strong in front of foreign leaders like China’s Xi Jinping or Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei if they are “too scared” to offend Trump.

Restoring trust: Christie, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said the first step to restoring trust in institutions like the FBI and the Department of Justice is to put accountable leadership in place. Once the president has put character-based choices forward that will have a no-politics approach to their roles, the executive should get out of the way and let them do their jobs.

Transgender policy: Counter to most conservative policies, Christie said he would not support a nationwide law protecting minors from transgender treatments, but he argued that is the most conservative position. If the government begins stepping between children and their parents, he reasoned, it’s a slippery slope to further involvement that could erode constitutional rights. He said he trusted parents and would uphold parental rights even if he disagreed with some positions.

Poll performance: 2.5 percent, down 0.1 points since last debate

In his words: “I want you all to picture in your minds Election Day. You all will be headed to the polls to vote and that’s something that Donald Trump will not be able to do because he will be convicted of felonies before then, and his right to vote will be taken away. If we deny reality as a party, we will have four more years of Joe Biden.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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