Tuscaloosa played host to Alabama’s first-ever presidential debate Wednesday night, although the four jockeying Republican candidates in attendance were overshadowed by who wasn’t there — former President Donald Trump.
Just hours before the debate, U.S. Sen. Katie Britt became the last of Alabama’s Republican Congressional delegation to announce her support for Trump.
Chris Christie, the former governor from New Jersey, mocked the other three candidates in attendance — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — for going nearly 20 minutes into the debate without acknowledging the elephant not in the room.
“These three are acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said. “The fifth guy didn’t have the guts to stand up here, but these three guys are seeming to compete with Voldemort — ‘He Who should not be named.’ They don’t want to talk about it.”
For his part, Christie continued to come hard after Trump, which garnered him plenty of boos from an audience that clearly favored Trump.
“In this race, the truth needs to be spoken: he is unfit,” Christie said.
“He is an angry bitter man who wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him and anyone who has tried to hold him to account on his own conduct,” he added later in the debate. “Failing to speak out against him, pretending he is somehow a victim, empowers him.”
Ramaswamy criticized his fellow candidates for turning on Trump after previously “licking Donald Trump’s boots.”
“Ron DeSantis, you’ve been a great governor, but you would have never been one without actually begging Donald Trump for that endorsement, same thing for Nikki Haley,” Ramaswamy said. “Same thing with Chris Christie as a lobbyist begging them for COVID money for his special interests in New Jersey, prepping him for the debates last time around.”
DeSantis dodged questions about recent campaigns hinting Donald Trump is mentally unfit, instead saying 80 is too old to start a term as President and arguing Republicans need a candidate that can serve two terms.
“Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think he’s as bad as Biden was at all. But I do think that over a four-year period it is not a job for somebody that’s pushing 80.”
DeSantis leaned in hard on transgender issues that have gained traction in the state and across the country, particularly coming after Haley for statements that the law should not be involved with “sex change operations on minors.”
“If you’re not willing to stand up for the kids, if you’re not willing to stand up and say it is wrong to mutilate these kids, then you’re not going to fight for the people back home,” DeSantis said.
Both Haley and Christie have commented that the government should not get involved with puberty blockers, and Christie defended that on stage—stating that the issue should be left up to parents without government interference.
Haley later retorted that DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill didn’t go far enough, stopping at third grade when it should go through high school. Alabama lawmakers are bandying about such an extension to the state’s own version of the law.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy focused, especially early in the debate, on hitting Haley for having the support of big-money influencers such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a Democratic donor.
Ramswamy and DeSantis pushed that Haley would have to answer to her donors that would prevent her from being tough on China and on certain social issues.
Haley fired back that her opponents were “just jealous.”
Meanwhile, Christie came to Haley’s aid after Ramaswamy posited that Haley could not name Ukranian provinces on a map.
“We disagree about some issues, and we disagree about who should be president of the United States, but we don’t disagree on this: This is a smart accomplished woman,” Christie said.
At one point Ramaswamy embraced multiple conspiracy theories onstage, including that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “an inside job,” that the 2020 election was “stolen by big tech,” that the great replacement theory “is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but a basic statement of the Democratic Party platform,” and more.
The candidates took on a host of other topics—from Israel to the economy during the two-hour debate at the University of Alabama’s Moody Music Hall.
Asked whether he would send troops to rescue American hostages of Hamas, DeSantis said Israel needs to be given the power to defend itself.
Christie criticized DeSantis for not directly answering the question.
“When you’re President, you’re not going to have a choice of whether to answer that question or not,” Christie said.
Christie said he would absolutely send troops in to rescue hostages if presented with a good plan to extract them.
Ramswamy echoed giving Israel full power to defend itself “without anyone (including the UN) second-guessing their decisions” and said he supports Israel “smoking the terrorists at their southern border while we smoke the terrorists at our southern border.”
Haley said America needs to “punch (Iran) hard” as her time on the UN showed her that “Iran only responds to strength.”
Ramswamy criticized Haley, saying that “foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom.”
Christie said he has firsthand experience as a U.S. attorney during the Sept. 11 attacks, “meanwhile (Ramswamy) was learning about provinces and running his smarts mouth at Harvard.”
The Southern Border
DeSantis stood by his previous comments to deal with fentanyl at the border by shooting “stone cold dead” anyone who has a backpack that border agents believe to have the deadly drug.
“The comander-in-chief has a responsibility to fight back against these people,” DeSantis said. “You categorize them as foreign terrorist organizations—Al Queda wasn’t wearing a uniform, they had man-dresses on. You had to make a judgment based on intelligence and positive ID.”
DeSantis also said he would complete the border wall and fund it by taxing remittances sent back to Mexico by immigrants in America.
Haley said she would deport the “8 million immigrants who have come in under Biden’s watch,” while immigrants who have been here longer would depend on whether they are working, paying taxes and contributing. As for fentanyl, she said the U.S. needs to crack down on China, which she identified as the source of the drug.
Ramswamy stood by his plans to “annihilate drug labs” in Mexico, but also focused on attacking the demand side for fentanyl as much as the supply side.
“The harder part is dealing with the crisis of purpose and meaning,” Ramswamy said. “We’re deluding ourselves; the real false promise is not having dealt with the underlying mental health problem.”