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Nikki Haley finds herself the prime target of GOP debate rivals

Former South Carolina generated controversy for social media proposal

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 07 December 2023 11:37 GMT
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Debate crowd boos as Vivek Ramaswamy accuses Nikki Haley of 'fascism'

During her closing statement in the fourth Republican primary debate on Wednesday, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley promised voters that if elected, she would bring a different approach.

“No drama,” she said. “No vendettas. No whining.”

All three of those things, however, were in great supply across the debate stage during the preceding two hours in Alabama, where the former South Carolina governor was attacked over seemingly every part of her record.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy generated a round of early boos when he accused former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley of being a “fascist” for her views on social media.

“We’re marching toward fascism under Biden,” Mr Ramaswamy said. “The only person more fascist than the Biden regime now is Nikki Haley.”

The GOP candidate’s insult was in regards to comments Ms Haley made in November to voters during a telephone town hall about how she wanted to make sure “every person on social media is verified.” She later walked back the proposal, telling CNBC that “life would be more civil” without anonymous accounts, but the verification rules should only apply to people from nations with hostile relationships with the US.

Best moments from the 2023 GOP presidential debates

Elsewhere, during a transphobic rant, Ron DeSantis painted Ms Haley as lax on the subject of what he described as men entering little girls’ bathrooms, while Chris Christie criticised her for telling the audience Donald Trump was “good on trade,” even though some of his policies on China drove up prices for consumers.

Perhaps the strategy shouldn’t come as a surprise – Ms Haley, according to national poll averages, is the only candiate who has gained any notable support since August, though all the GOP contenders are still lightyears behind the Trump 2024 campaign juggernaut.

The debate stage attacks from Mr Ramaswamy weren’t limited to Ms Haley’s views on social media.

Nikki Haley faced criticism for ties to corporate world during GOP debate (Getty Images)

The entrepreneur, who is worth nearly a billion dollars himself, also lashed out at the former UN ambassador for her finances, accusing her of being “corrupt” for earning money via corporate speeches and serving on company boards.

When Ms Haley left the UN in 2018, she had less than $100,000 in her bank accounts, according to Forbes.

In a resignation letter to Mr Trump, she explained how she felt that “returning from government to the private sector is not a step down but a step up.”

Since leaving office, Ms Haley has made an estimated $8m fortune, according to the magazine.

That’s thanks to speeches for large companies like Barclays Bank, as well as selling memoirs, offering consultant services, and serving on the corporate boards of companies like aerospace giant Boeing.

On the debate stage, Ms Haley said her finances represented the public service of her and her husband, a member of the South Carolina Army National Guard, who is currently deployed in Africa.

“We weren’t bankrupt when I left the UN,” Ms Haley said. “We’re people of service ... It may be bankrupt to him. but it certainly wasn’t bankrupt to us.”

On the subject of her time at Boeing, Ms Haley said she resigned from the company after it sought emergency Covid funding, and accused fellow candidates of being “jealous” that corporate leaders were supporting her campaign.

But the criticisms didn’t end there. After one exchange, where Mr Ramaswamy mocked the South Carolina leader and claimed she couldn’t identify parts of Ukraine on a map, rival candidate Chris Christie stepped in to defend her, a rare moment of comity on a debate stage overflowing with hostility.

“All he knows how to do, all he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service and not say anything that moves the ball down the field for the United States,” Mr Christie said, calling the entrepreneur the “most obnoxious blowhard in America.”

Mr Christie added that while he disagrees with Ms Haley on some issues, “what we don’t disagree on [is] this is a smart accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her.”

Eventually, Ms Haley became so exasperated with the attacks from Mr Ramaswamy, including one that a Haley campaign ad mentioning her wearing high heels sounded “sounded like a woke Dylan Mulvaney Bud Light ad,” the former UN ambassador simply told moderators, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

Haley attacked by Ramaswamy: 'It’s not worth my time to respond to him'

In the second half of the debate, the candidates reckoned with the elephant in the room, who wasn’t in the room: Donald Trump.

Their answers displayed the full spectrum of Republican views on the man, from full-throated, at times conspiratorial support of the former president and his claims, to queasy half-criticism, to thinly veiled repackaging of his incendiary ideas, to outright condemnation all but certain to go nowhere with the Trump-loving base.

Mr Ramaswamy continued his vocal support for Mr Trump, echoing claims of stolen elections and defending the former president’s fitness for office.

Governor DeSantis, meanwhile, admitted after multiple rounds of questions he essentially felt that Donald Trump wasn’t fit for office anymore because of his age and the prospect of Mr Trump only being allowed to serve one more term.

“Father time is undefeated,” he told the crowd, adding that the presidency is “not a job for someone who’s pushing 80.”

Chris Christie dubs Trump 'Voldemort' at fourth GOP presidential debate

Mr Christie, the most centrist of the remaining GOP candidates, was the only one who offered a categorical criticism of Mr Trump. He told the Alabama audience that the former president would be convicted of crimes before the 2024 election was over, prompting boos.

“Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “You can boo about it all you like and continue to deny reality. If we deny reality as a party, we will have four more years of Joe Biden.”

For her part, Ms Haley said she would not support a “straight up Muslim ban” and “it’s not about a religion,” while describing a shutdown of immigration from countries with anti-US terror groups that sounded much like that of the Trump administration.

The Trump White House also insisted its immigration policies were not a Muslim ban, even though Mr Trump repeatedly described the plan this way himself prior to taking office.

All in all, whether the attacks landed on Ms Haley, or whether any other candidate was able to distinguish themselves during Wednesday’s debate, the overall outcome of the night may not have much impact on 2024.

According to poll averages, Mr Trump’s support among the Republican electorate has never been higher and is nearing 60 per cent. The candidates may all have found a common target in Nikki Haley, but they still haven’t figured out how to slow down their common rival before next November.

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