TUSCALOOSA, AL — Four candidates vying for the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election took the stage in Tuscaloosa Wednesday night for a heated fourth and final debate before the Iowa primary in January.
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The event, which was hosted by NewsNation, marked the first time the state of Alabama has ever hosted a presidential debate.
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National and international issues dominated discussions, with the state of Alabama only being mentioned twice during the debate. Indeed, the first mention of the Yellowhammer State, apart from being cited as the host site for the debate, came 45 minutes into the event when Alabama was mentioned in passing regarding the number of fentanyl deaths in the state.
The second and only other mention of the state was also provided in passing an hour and a half into the debate when Alabama’s lack of a voter ID law was brought up in a broader discussion of election integrity and security.
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Nevertheless, the most noticeable absence from the debate stage was the presumed GOP frontrunner — former President Donald Trump — who leads his Republican competitors in all relevant polls by a wide margin and has not participated in any of the four GOP Primary debates.
The Moody Music Building’s 1,000-seat concert hall on the campus of the University of Alabama was the host site for the invitation-only event, with candidates standing in front of the venue’s iconic Holtkamp organ, which has more than 5,000 pipes.
Candidates who qualified for the debate were former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
As Patch previously reported, candidates participating in tonight’s debate were required to have 80,000 donors and 6% support in at least two American polls.
Topics during the debate included electability, the Southern border, the fentanyl crisis, the economy, interest rates, the repeal of Obamacare, foreign relations and other hot-button topics.
The first candidate to speak during the two-hour debate was DeSantis, who was asked about his momentum going into the campaign and his underperformance in support on the campaign trail to date.
“I have delivered results, that’s what we need for this country,” DeSantis responded, before going on the offensive against Haley — a tactic that was also employed by Ramaswamy throughout the night, who first criticized the former United Nations ambassador’s connections to massive transnational companies like Boeing and BlackRock.
As the three candidates slugged it out with words and vitriol in the earliest minutes of the event, Christie became noticeably agitated as the focus from the three moderators appeared to be on every candidate other than him.
Still, 17 minutes into the debate, Christie blasted Trump, referring to him as “the fifth guy,” before comparing him to Lord Voldemort — the primary villain in the Harry Potter book series.
It was at this point early in the debate that things began to devolve into shouting matches between the candidates, with DeSantis and Ramaswamy teaming up in their attacks on Haley.
For instance, Ramaswamy said the country was “marching toward fascism” under President Joe Biden, before then referring to Haley as a fascist for her stances on social media and cybersecurity.
Idealogical dividing lines separating the candidates came into clearer focus during this particular exchange, with Christie coming to Haley’s defense after Ramaswamy claimed Haley would support sending American troops to Ukraine, despite not being able to name three provinces in the war-ravaged country.
“This is a smart, accomplished woman and you should stop insulting her,” Christie said to Ramaswamy in the first of several sharply pointed criticisms of the businessman.
But in the second hour of the debate, moderators attempted to steer talk to former President Donald Trump, beginning with his stance on immigrants from predominantly Islamic countries.
Despite the prompt for the question, none of the four candidates mentioned Trump’s policy directly but, instead, provided their own views on the issue without being critical of the former president.
Among the four candidates on the debate stage, however, Christie was the most critical of Trump when questioned about a comment made by the former president this week after he was asked if he would be a dictator if re-elected to the presidency.
Trump responded with: “No, except for Day One,” going on to mention his plans for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants if he wins the presidency.
“He’s made it very clear. There is no mystery to what he wants to do,” Christie said. “He started off his campaign saying ‘I am your retribution.’ Eight years ago, he said ‘I am your voice.’ … Every one of these policies he is talking about is pursuing a plan of retribution.”
Christie also mentioned the disturbing level of devotion shown by Trump’s base, citing an instance when several of the former president’s supporters raised their hands when asked if they would still support him if he were convicted of a felony. It was during this response from Christie that Ramaswamy raised his hand in a mocking show of support.
“Do I think he was kidding when he said he would be a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history,” Christie said of Trump, before chiding his conduct as unacceptable and that voters should be mindful of what they will get if the former president is re-elected. “He will only be his own retribution. He doesn’t care about the American people. It’s Donald Trump first.”
A deluge of boos rained down on Christie after these comments — underscoring his previous point regarding the unpopular nature of telling the truth in politics.
As for DeSantis, when asked if he believed Trump was mentally fit to be president, the Florida governor seemingly sidestepped the question and, instead, focused on Trump’s age as the main reason he should not be the Republican nominee.
“Father Time is undefeated,” the Florida governor said. “The idea we’re gonna put someone up there who’s almost 80 and not have issues, that’s not true. … I think we need to have somebody younger.”
Christie took issue with what he viewed as DeSantis refusing to answer the question, with the two attempting to shout over each other to the point that both of their positions were unintelligible to those in attendance and watching on television.
“He’s afraid to answer … Either you are afraid or you’re not listening,” Christie said of the Florida governor. “[The other Republican candidates are] afraid to offend. If you’re afraid to offend Donald Trump, then what are you going to do when you sit across from President Xi [of China], you sit across from the Ayatollah [of Iran], you sit across from [Russian President Vladimir]Putin?”
Still, DeSantis doubled down on his position, before Ramaswamy accused the other three candidates on stage of “licking Donald Trump’s boots for years for money and endorsements.”
At this point, Ramaswamy seemed to have lost the support of the crowd as he went on to rattle off a convoluted series of conspiracy theories.
These outlandish theories ranged from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters being an inside job by the federal government, before then providing thinly veiled support for the “Great Replacement Theory” — a far-right, white nationalist conspiracy that alleges a plot designed to undermine or “replace” the political power and culture of white people in western countries, according to a definition provided by the National Immigration Forum.
But a chorus of loud boos drowned out the ramblings of the 38-year-old entrepreneur after he circled back to his highly personal critiques of Haley, before writing in big letters on a legal pad “Nikki = Corrupt” and holding it high for the crowd to see while maintaining the offensive with his words.
Haley was then met with thunderous applause when she said she wouldn’t waste her time in responding to Ramaswamy’s attacks.
The final half-hour of the evening kicked off with discussions over college campuses and displays of antisemitism in the wake of the war in Israel, along with questions relating to national security threats facing the United States and the response to a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“Deterring China’s ambitions is the No. 1 national security task I will do as president and we will succeed,” DeSantis said.
In response to the same question, Haley suggested a win in Ukraine through U.S. support would be a major deterrent, but suggested strengthening military alliances with other foreign powers to project strength to China provides are more suitable long-term approach.
Christie, who established this pattern during the debate, turned talk back to Trump when discussing China, before criticizing Haley’s assertion earlier in the debate that Trump was “good on trade.”
Instead, Christie insisted that Trump’s decision to raise tariffs in a kind of economic trade war with China only resulted in increases in prices.
“[Trump] didn’t change one Chinese policy in the process,” Christie said. “He failed on it.”
During closing statements, the talk was a bit more tempered and the themes more unified, with all four candidates agreeing on the need for the party to take back the White House and defeat Democratic President Joe Biden.
Alabama’s party primaries for the 2024 presidential election are set for Tuesday, March 5, with a runoff, if needed, on April 16.
As a final debate event for the City of Tuscaloosa, FOX & Friends will host its “Breakfast with Friends” segment live from Brick & Spoon in Tuscaloosa.
FOX & Friends co-host Lawrence Jones will be on location to speak with patrons about the debate, issues impacting Alabama voters and other news of the day. He will also be joined by DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
The show will air from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m.
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