Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley came under sustained attack in the Republican Party’s fourth primary debate on Wednesday night, as her primary rivals tried to halt her rise as a plausible alternative to Donald Trump for the party’s nomination.
Ms Haley, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie sparred for two hours over everything from bathroom bills and funding for Ukraine’s war effort to their prospects of actually defeating Mr Trump.
But it was Ms Haley – who has risen in the polls in recent weeks while picking up the backing of deep-pocketed Wall Street donors – who sustained much of the heat in an often testy debate, as Mr DeSantis and Mr Ramaswamy tried to paint her as a stooge for wealthy backers and hidden interests.
“Nikki will cave to those big donors when it counts,” said Mr DeSantis, adding that she would be “very weak” on China because of their influence. He also claimed she was too liberal on transgender issues.
During the debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Mr Ramaswamy attacked Ms Haley for serving on the board of Boeing, and tried to goad her for corporate connections.
Ms Haley has been praised recently by JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, among others, and recently met BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.
The former South Carolina governor, who occasionally appeared blindsided by the sustained attacks, said her competitors wished they had attracted the same level of support from big donors and conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity.
“They’re just jealous,” said Ms Haley. “I love all the attention, fellas,” she added later. “Thank you for that.”
On foreign policy – a contentious issue for the Republican Party, whose senators earlier in the day sank a bill to provide more US funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan – the debate also grew heated.
Mr Ramaswamy claimed Ms Haley was unable even to name the provinces in eastern Ukraine to which he claimed she would be willing to send US troops.
The attacks on Ms Haley prompted an intervention from Mr Christie, who dismissed Mr Ramaswamy as “the most obnoxious blowhard in America”.
“This is a smart, accomplished woman,” said Ms Christie. “You should stop insulting her ... All he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service.”
The Haley-Ramaswamy feud, which was a feature of previous debates, endured through the evening, with the biotech entrepreneur earning boos from the crowd as he held up a handwritten sign reading “Nikki = corrupt”.
“It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” said Ms Haley.
But if Mr DeSantis’s and Mr Ramaswamy’s attacks on Ms Haley were a theme of the evening, it was a sign of the former UN ambassador’s growing strength in the race.
Ms Haley is now polling second behind Mr Trump in the early-voting states of New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina – and battling Mr DeSantis for second in Iowa, where the Florida governor has pinned his hopes.
The debate was also an opportunity for Mr DeSantis to revive his flailing campaign. He was once seen as Mr Trump’s pre-eminent threat, after cruising to re-election as Florida governor in 2022. In recent weeks, his campaign has been plagued by infighting and dysfunction.
But Mr DeSantis was relentlessly on message during the night, criticising Ms Haley for being insufficiently conservative and doubling down on his hardline stance on border control.
“We cannot let the United States turn into Europe,” Mr DeSantis said, as he outlined plans to crack down on immigration.
The Florida governor refused several opportunities to criticise Mr Trump, who remains popular with much of the party despite mounting legal troubles including four criminal trials next year.
Mr Christie, trailing in fifth place in the race for the nomination, took the opposite tack, warning that Mr Trump was “an angry bitter man” bent on retribution, who was “unfit” for office.
Mr Ramaswamy, whose polling numbers have fallen below 5 per cent in recent weeks, rushed to the former president’s defence.
He also aired several conspiracy theories he has espoused on the campaign trail. The 2020 election had been “stolen by Big Tech”, Mr Ramaswamy claimed, while the January 6th, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was an “inside job”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023